Thierry Font's bonsai workshops - translated best of

Cosmos

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Thierry Font was a French bonsai pro who lived in the Montpellier region in southern France. His background was fine arts. He studied in Japan and was friends with Takeo Kawabe, Kyuzo Murata and several prominent European bonsai people. His two favourite species were juniperus phoenicia and prunus mahaleb (what the French call "cerisier Sainte-Lucie"). Font died in 2014 from cancer, way too young.

You can see his work on his blog as well as some other pictures and information following these links:
Parlons bonsaï tribute
Esprit Bonsaï tribute
Parlons bonsaï interview

He gave a lot of workshops, and some were filmed and upload to YT. I volunteered in this thread to translate the best bits. The English is going to be somwhat fuzzy, as it is my second language.

I recommend you watch at least parts of the videos to see the trees discussed (also, to give the uploaders more views, always nice).

I'll start with the ones I consider the most fundamental to his view of bonsai, and also the most interesting.
 
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Cosmos

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The one already posted, where the group discussed an nice oak that doesn't meet the traditional criteria for proportions and shape:

"We need to remove the bonsai pictures from our head, we need to start thinking tree...this remains an oak. If you want to make bonsai with nicely defined pads, do not choose an oak."

"The Japanese say that a tree is supposed to evoke something... if you do not feel anything in front a tree, it's not worth bothering. Often, in front of massive, hyper-worked trees, you feel nothing."

"From afar, you can distinguish between the species by the shape of the branches. If your overwork or overwire the branches, you lose that shape. When you wire, you need to think ‘oak’."

"If you don't know what to do with a tree (in terms of styling), you cultivate it so that it is strong and vigorous, and the tree will build itself."

"The oak knows how to do oak branches, you don't. Let it build its branches, you just need to give it a hand, for example through bud selection."

"When you select your branches, consider their beauty, not their location. (...) Better to have a beautiful branch in a bad spot than an ugly branch in the right location."

"If you think like this, you will know how to build trees. People will come up to you and say ‘but it's not a bonsai’ and you will answer ‘well, fortunately it's not’."

"The random guy who has 2,000 oaks in his garden knows more about them than the master who has only one. (...) Josep Maria, to refine his pruning technique on olive trees, went to see the farmers pruning olive trees everyday all year long. He thought the way these pruned branches reacted created the best-looking branches in the end."

"You know, wiring and jin treatment, those were invented recently by the professional growers in Japan to speed things up. To get that old deadwood look on an itoigawa, it takes twenty years...well the grower doesn't eat during twenty years if he can't speed things up. You apply the solution and bam, it looks old and in the same year you can sell the trees. Same thing with wiring. Bonsai used to be done only with shears. Wiring is recent. They even did conifers like that. Can you imagine? Or by breaking and twisting branches with your hands. With olive trees, you have a upward growing branch, you twist it and pull it down over and over and it's going to stay low"

"Something we need to do in France, and in Europe, is to let go of our ego and go see a guy who knows how to graft (when you need grafts). It's not a shame to go see a professional who knows how to do it very well. People will say "but you didn't do it yourself", but who cares, it's still my tree. In Japan, they're not afraid to that, they go see guys who are expert grafters, who do it almost exclusively. Cultivators in the south of France call grafting professionals for vines and olive trees, and it's still their wine and their olive oil after that..."

"(On grafting) The Japanese find it striking about us Europeans, they say "you guys collect yamadori with such beautiful trunks, but the branches on them are super ugly". That's because we want to build branches with what's there, when we need to replace it all. The branches that the tree built in the mountain are of no use for us, the foliage is too far out. They look good in their natural setting, but once the tree is in a pot, you see the problem with their length. (...) The Japanese say that with any tree, even one with a mediocre trunk, you can make a beautiful tree if the ramification and the branches are pretty."

"At Murata's place, you see trees with tiny trunks, big like my fingers, but with impeccable branches with great movement and no traces of pruning, and you say wow. But it doesn't suit everybody... most guys (foreigners) who go to his garden look at trees and say that they're underworked, whereas Murata would tell you "yeah, I know, I work my trees too much" and you're like wait a minute, there is something we don’t understand here. As soon as you do not see the traces of the work done on a tree, you need to tell yourself "that guy is solid", no matter if the tree suits your tastes or not".
 

Cosmos

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Second video from that same workshop, they are looking for a difficult tree to try and define a project. They look at a large recently collected European beech that was left in its original soil. The tree has no nebari to speak of, but has a weird-looking protruding root mass on one side.

“(joking) Why on earth would you collect that? (…) You need to restore the vigor of this tree. The soil is too fine. (owner said he didn’t want to disturb the tree more by changing the soil). With soil that is too fine like this, there is a very simple mechanical problem: you cannot prune a lot because the tree will drown, you have no control over watering.”


“The first task, before doing any major pruning, would be to do a minor repotting. But that depends on the time elapsed since collection, how well it is growing, etc. (remark of a student) Yes, you can change the soil right away when collecting.”


(talking about the weird root bulge) “Upon collection, you should’ve buried that. It would have made new roots. (owner says he didn’t because he couldn’t bury the tree deeper in the pot) Well, you should’ve chosen a bigger pot.”


“You know, when collecting some Mediterranean species, some collectors mark the tree with a cross to show what face was facing south in the wild. When repotting it, you plant it in the same orientation. You plant it the wrong way, it will burn. The roots, yes, but even the buds. In southern France, the north-facing buds won’t survive if they face the sun on the south side. When moving large old olive trees, they used this technique. (student says that good landscapers ask nurseries to do the same with the trees they buy). Some people will say it’s a detail, in a pot you can turn the tree around, but still it’s good to remember this information.”


(everybody is thinking about the general design of the tree) “It’s simple: either you eliminate the (upper part of the) trunk and start over with one of the two branches down below, or both, why not, it could be pretty, you cut the trunk here (above the main branches) (…) or you try to incorporate the whole trunk, but it needs tapering, we must refine it, it is very tall right now.”


“The problem with this tree is that it doesn’t correspond to a classic, solitary beech, the beautiful lush beech. This beech is from the mountain, it has suffered the cold, the wind, the snow. Usually, beeches have spreading, regular nebari, and often branches, even ugly branches, all around the trunk. (the tree doesn’t have branches on the side away from the camera). They would also be straight. This one is slanted.”


“Here’s what you do. You play with this (the surface root bulge). (…) It could be very beautiful. See what I mean here: if you try to grow new shoots from this, it could form a smaller tree next to the base and give a lot of character. (implies that you’d get rid of the upper half of the main trunk). Traditionally, you do not incorporate deadwood to a beech…but you see beeches is the mountains, they have deadwood everywhere, they are hollowed, those that got struck by lightning. The trunk is already rotten here. Using a lot of deadwood on the main trunk would really highlight the new secondary tree sprouting from the root bulge. You could then reform the main trunk with one of the branches. I like the character of this one, it is too long, too short, doesn’t matter. The decision you make for the moment is you keep these two branches, you keep the surface root bulge, you reduce the top of the trunk. This root bulge, it is alive, but you need to grow it, build a younger tree from it. The main branches of the trunk, you work on their beech-like character, the upper part of the trunk you chop quite high, and you work your way down to the branches (student asks how you work a trunk of a deciduous like this) You make a lightning-struck trunk, quite simply, all hollow. Beech wood doesn’t hold… it holds as timber, but not in nature, it rots. Once it starts growing, the tree will continue rooting, the interior will get hollow, but the trunk will still grow.”


“What you will build is a beech in terms of its branches, but not in terms of its general shape. (mimics a classic deciduous shape). You cannot do that here. You cannot exploit the shape of this tree, you cannot build taper at the top at all. This is a mountain beech that has endured everything. Otherwise, you need to straighten it, rebuild a nebari… you can’t really do that. You should’ve collected another one, there surely were other beeches with more classic shapes where you collected. As soon as you pick this tree up, you better set your mind to exploiting its potential as is. This tree will be a beech through its branches, not through its general shape. Paul Bruno’s tree, you remember, a huge semi-cascade beech, deadwood everywhere, people told “well, that deadwood, cannot do that on a beech”… who cares. It looks like a beech because it has beech branches.”


“Now, the question is, is the tree strong enough to tolerate the big chop now? (student says it should go in a big pot with good soil for 2-3 years) Because we’d be removing more than half the tree. Maybe what you need to do it progressively weaken the branches you don’t need at the top, and repot it. Because it’s with the roots that you prepare a tree for hard pruning. It won’t gain strength in that soil. It’s the opposite situation that that of the maple we discussed earlier, which was a refined tree in old, crumbly akadama, it was starting to have internodes that were too short, the tree almost stopped growing, and when it was repotted in soil with large particle size, it exploded, the first internodes were several inches long… It was too much of a difference all at once. This beech, at this stage, needs to grow, gain volume when you want it to, not all the top but at the level of the lower branches you will use. (…) To me, it’s not a problem that the tree is tall, as long as it has sufficient foliage density. The tree will change shape in a (growing) pot, don’t forget that.”


“This is what you need to highlight with the design… all of the tree’s defects.”


(student asks if the owner shouldn’t repot and hard prune the top now) “You need to prune some of the top, weaken parts of it, but not all… Growing beeches, it’s like oaks, I don’t own any, I can’t say with certainty. We can think ‘it’s a deciduous, we can cut everything, it will rebound’: you can kill a deciduous doing that, you can wear it out.”


(shows the main upward growing branches) “This is what got your attention when you collected, right… That happens, we fixate on a feature, but once it’s in a pot, you say ‘wow, what the hell did I do’. That happens”


“The tree is beautiful from all sides, but each side has its problems. From here, no branches, here no nebari. Could you airlayer? You could get 2 trees from one. Not an easy thing to do here.”


“If you do hard work now, the tree might very well be weak for a few years. It’s delicate. So we don’t know what to do now. The owner must decide, it’s your tree. (…) Often, you bring in guys (implied: professionals) that will say ‘you need to cut here’. That’s often what they say, ‘you must cut here, it’s too tall’ But there are features to utilize up top. Don’t be that radical. (…) You have several nice branches all along the trunk, wavy branches like beeches do.”

(they discuss what the owner saw in that tree) “When you collect, you usually start with an idea of where you want to go with the tree. You don’t collect just to collect. There’s something that attracted you when you collected. (owner says the base, the middle of the trunk) There’s always something to do, but it might not be easy or obvious.”


“If it were my tree, I would cut above the uppermost of the low branches. I would progressively weaken the top. (student asks what weakening means) You intervene on the branches you want to remove eventually, and don’t touch the branches you want to keep and strengthen. In several phases. (points at the lower branches) This you do not prune, even if it gets really long, that’s a good thing, you can always go back. It’s going to be vigorous, so it’s going to go really fast. If you prune here now, it’s not going to do anything. Prune only the tip of this branch the first year, and the rest of it will grow very strongly.”


(owner says the soil is 100% the original soil) “It’s good to keep some of the original soil, but don’t go crazy. Nothing grows in here.”


“You have a ton of options with this tree. As we were discussing earlier, when you’re not sure about the design, you grow it out, make the tree really strong, gain a lot of foliage, reduce a bit, which you will need to do anyway. Once this is done, it will become clear, the tree will be built, it will be there. (…) with a front on this side, you already have the branches, you don’t need to build them, that’s a plus. But you need to grow the tree.”


“As far as the soil goes, everybody finds the right mix for them. When you collected it, you could’ve mixed some original soil, but not keep it entirely in its original soil like this. It hasn’t grown roots yet, the rootball is stuck in a compact ball of earth.”
 

my nellie

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Thank you @Cosmos for your effort and time and for sharing here.
Unfortunately Thierry Font left this futile world too soon... he had a lot more to grant to Bonsai.
May his sould has found peace!
 

Ingvill

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Thank you very much for sharing :)
 

my nellie

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Hello @Cosmos !
Did you have the time to prepare any new translations of Thierry's videos, may I ask....
Thank you.
 

Cosmos

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Hi Nellie, I have a few videos of his lined up, but I might do one this week. One about junipers, one about first styling of a big pine, another one about maples. Any preference?
 

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Alright, here’s the pine one. The next ones (no guarantee on the timeline) will be a bit more species-specific.

Les débuts d’un pin noir – the beginnings of a black pine, in three parts

Font talks about finding a vision for a tree, using a big field-grown black pine (Austrian, I think) as the example. The workshop took place in the fall.

(Part 1)

When you have a project of this type in front of you, where do you begin? This type of trees, or a smaller one, size doesn’t matter.

(People say nebari, lower trunk, etc.)

Cleaning up the tree helps for sure. Allows us to see better. How would you guys define where is the front? To find a front, you look at the movement of the trunk first, before the nebari. Why? Because the nebari can be corrected later. Theoretically, by grafting, for example. Yes, you can look at the nebari and see if a side is clearly better than others and start from there, sure. But before the nebari and the angle of the tree, you have to look at the movement of the trunk. That cannot be changed. And as we’re all different, this guy here might like this side better, you might like another side, doesn’t matter. But you have to build the tree using this movement. It’s not a matter of branches. You can graft branches, grow them.


(a student says that he saw more movement from another side)

Yes, but then the top is going backwards, away from us. The top can be brought back, but it’s heavy work. But before doing anything major, you have this address the soil. Today, we’re mostly discussing, we’re not working the tree heavily. The way the tree is, we’re not going to do heavy pruning or bending. But in this heavy soil, if you cut too much, the tree is going to die. Because you cannot control watering, we say the tree is drowning. If you remove half the foliage, half the roots are going to die. In a free-draining mix, there’s no problem, you withhold watering a bit, the roots that die dry up, are eaten by the live ones, but if we cannot control watering, the dead roots are going to rot, it’s going to bring in diseases. And the tree then becomes sensitive to attacks. The mycorrhizae will die too. So to prepare the tree for heavy work, you change the soil to free-draining substrate to prepare the roots to survive the work. If it’s in a free-draining mix, you can cut the trunk halfway and it’s not going to die. A black pine is basically unkillable. Just like olives. If you kill it, it’s because you cut it down to a stump with no foliage.


When the Japanese repot their black pines (thunbergii), they cut the roots even more than on maples, they cut them down to two fingers (width-wise). And they do just fine. But keep in mind these trees have years and years of training in a pot. They are used to getting worked like this. But if you work a tree from the field in this manner, you’re going to kill it. But as your trees gain years in pots, you can do heavier and heavier work on them, and they’re going to do well. My first pines are from 1988, I can now repot them in July, in August (in southern France), they don’t notice. But the first repotting, don’t screw up. This is a tree grown in a field, you could say that in some ways, it is used to being cultivated. And if you start trees with cuttings, it’s even better. From the start, the tree is used to being in a pot. You can do almost whatver you want with a tree like this, it doesn’t know anything else. Just like a wild animal versus a domesticated one.


So with a pine like this, we need to work downstairs (roots) before working upstairs. Because today’s work on the top is light, it’s ok, we can do a light branch selection. But if we wanted to straighten the trunk, we’d need to use rebar, see if the trunk moves, if it doesn’t, drill a hole in it, put a rebar in it, all things that can be done quite easily…if the tree is ready for it. But now it’s not.


You repot in the spring, change the substrate, let it recuperate, and it’s possible that in one growing season it’s vigorous enough to do heavy work. This is field-grown tree, not one from the mountains. That’s why it’s important to know the story of each individual tree, and adapt your work consequently. If you take ten pines like this, all of different origins, you’re going to get 10 different reactions to the same work. If they come from the same nursery, same year, same mother tree, then yes, they’re going to react very similarly. But it’s not always the case. What works one year doesn’t necessarily work the next year.


(So on a tree like this, can you change the apex?) Yes, after you change the substrate. But it’s a big, big operation. (Can you start with another branch to build a new apex?) Wouldn’t be simpler to change the front? Nothing is forever. Imagine over the years, you select a front where the apex doesn’t require bending. Ten years later, or let’s say eight, when the tree is well settled, on the other possible front you were considering, where there was a defect, the tree will look different. And often, in those cases, you do a minor cut, and whole tree is suddenly tilted the other way (the way you want). Suzuki says that you cannot show a tree unless all four sides have been worked as a front. It’s simple, when you think about it. It needs to look beautiful on all sides.

(Part 2)

There are way too many branches. They must usually never grow at the same level. But we can start with the idea that we will let branches we don’t want on the tree only to keep the vigor of the tree up. We can work the top without working the lower branches. Some trees presented in famous exhibitions in Japan were shown with a sacrifice branch at the top. We’d never allow this here, we would say “so ugly”, but the Japanese prioritize the health of the tree. They prefer a living tree than a beautiful but dead tree. This is what Kimura says too, “better a pine with long needles that’s alive than a dead pine with small needles”. (chatter about needle length) On a black pine like this, you can reduce needles to two centimeters, shorter than on a sylvestrus. But that’s when the tree is established. At the stage the tree is in now, the longer the needles and candles the better. The trunk is going to get bigger. Do you know that pines in a pot can get an added 50% in trunk size over the years? When people tell you that in a pot, the trunk is frozen, it’s not going to get bigger, it’s not true. One of my pines, the prize-winning double trunk pine, when Laurent Breysse saw it after I worked on it for several years, he said it was obviously bigger. In the pot it’s in, there’s much less room on the side than there used to be. You look at the pictures from the early years and you look at it now, and the difference is obvious. It’s gained, I’m sure, 5 cm (2 inches) on the side. At the level of the nebari, not on the trunk above. That’s because the trees grow, simply. If you grow it strongly, it’s going to age and get bigger, even in a pot. And keep in mind that on trees with heavy bark, the more they grow, the more they produce bark. The trunk is working, it’s moving under there.


(asked if they’re remove branches or needles at this point) Well, some clean up work has been done already. We won’t need to remove much. We’re not going to remove the needles in order to trigger backbudding. We’re not a stage when we need backbudding. This is a grown-tree, so we have plenty of small branches to grow as main branches for the future.


(On backbudding) I hope you remember one thing. The tree always buds more profusely on younger portions than on older portions. Otherwise, new buds would always emerge from the trunk. Here is an example (turning to an olive with long shoots). Imagine there are no side branches on this shoot, and that it is at the top of the tree. If you want to slow down or stop growth for this branch, what do you do? Where do you cut? At the end, at the start of the branch? No. The answer is in the middle part of the branch. If we cut the end, it’s a strong branch so it’s going to explode again with very strong growth. If you cut close to the beginning of the branch, the bud (or the 2) that’s going to pop is going to be as strong as the branch, because they’ll receive all the energy directed to this branch. Even if it’s going to take some time for the tree to push this growth. The best location for the cut is in the middle of the branch. When you are in the growing season. If you cut in the middle, the tree will want to wake up all the buds latent buds below, on a long section of the branch, and they will each get less energy. Instead of fuelling two buds at the end of the tree is one or two at the base of the branch, the tree is fueling ten of them. Ten exits for energy.


Turning back to the pine, this tree will bud much more easily on this new part of the branch than on older wood. There was a guy back in the day – the guy was an expert on plant growth, so keep that in mind – he managed to have scots pines backbud on the trunk, between the bark plates. Grown pines, not trees from the wild, but still. But this pine here, it’s a grown tree, if you work it well, it could pop buds on the trunk. It could happen. You’d need to feed is extremely heavily, let the extremities grow wild, when it’s strong, you cut a little. There’s so much energy in this trunk, it’s a pipe, it needs to come out somewhere, and it could even come out as buds on the trunk.


So now, we can make our minds on the general styling of this tree, without even having to select a front. We can select some branches already. We need to keep the lower branch here. If we start with this one, it’s easy to select the rest. We can even keep a few branches growing at the same level. This way, the tree is selecting the strongest of the bunch. This also allows us to be wrong, if we keep a lot of branches on. If we think this branch is the prettiest, but one day the tree says no and abandons it, then it doesn’t matter, as long as there is a strong branch somewhere above or below. We need to have emergency exits, in case our plans change. Always leave more branches than too few. If we remove a lot now, we’re going to considerably slow down the tree. If we do it properly and go light, in the spring the tree is going to react very well and push strong growth, and you’ll be able to cut as much as you’re going to cut today. But if you do heavy pruning now, then you’ll need to wait not until next spring for the next step, but the spring after, and we lose almost a year and a half. When we prune now, the tree keeps working, it’s preparing for next spring, they’re active all through winter. The tree will compensate for the vigor lost by the pruned branches, it’s going to grow stronger on the branches you left.


But this soil is worrying, it’s why it’s the first thing you need to do in the spring. And depending on what you find in there, you adjust how hard you go with the roots. Some people say you hose everything… well let me tell you, in some cases it takes four repots to get all the soil out. You need to do it progressively. Especially since it’s a pine. Resine-producing-species in general.


(do we need to keep feeding in the winter?) No. Well, I let the balls of fertilizer from the fall on the substrate, but it doesn’t change anything. For organic fertilizers, it needs to be 18 degrees (65 F) in the pot for them to be active. Yes, there are liquid fertilizers, but there’s no point in the winter. But what we do now is to fertilize the trees heavily, because trees are preparing for next spring right now. When they grow in the spring, they don’t feed on this year’s fertilizer, they feed on their resources from last year. This is why, as a rule, we generally don’t do structural pruning in the fall. I used to do it, but I don’t anymore.

Part 3

You look at all those branches and you head is hurting, you’re wondering why ones to remove. What you do then is you start from the top. You define the desired height of the tree, and then going down you locate the branches you remove. Even better if the low branch is obvious, between the two, the branch selection should not be difficult. This here could a nice apex, but then you need to ask yourself, between the lower branch and the apex, do you have enough material to build a tree? You’re the one to decide. The part above your apex, you progressively weaken it, and then you cut it when you repot. Because the strength of the tree is up there. Since you’re hurting the roots anyways, you might as well remove a bit of foliage at the root to balance things out. The rest of the branches, those you do not want, you can remove now. You let say four shoots run at the very top, so the tree doesn’t stop growing, you remove everything else around those apical shoots, and you let the tree grow. The front is going to come later.
 

Michaelb

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Any more?
This is really good information!
I learned alot!
Thanks for the effort of translating
 

Cosmos

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Any more?
This is really good information!
I learned alot!
Thanks for the effort of translating

Hi Michael, when time allows I may translate one about junipers and how they get their shapes. If you have some mastery of French (as you are in Belgium), you can look for these videos yourself too, most of them were posted by a French bonsai guy as part of the "L’arbre et le geste" series.
 

thatguy

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Really appreciated the time you spent on these translations! Love seeing how he approaches a tree and speaks of harnessing it's strength and vigor. Working with it to make it into something more.
 

Barbare

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pour le plaisir des yeux un blog lu et relu

excuse my english google traduction
 

Cosmos

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Really appreciated the time you spent on these translations! Love seeing how he approaches a tree and speaks of harnessing it's strength and vigor. Working with it to make it into something more.

I find Font’s approach is very comparable to the one preached by guys like Graham Potter in the UK, or Ryan Neil in the US (without the Neilian verbiage hehehe), but with a different cultural flavour and a Mediterranean focus. No big discrepancy between them to reconcile in your bonsai practice.

Reminds me that I should do another video translation soon.
 
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