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Shohin: Small but not insignificant

By Siggy Franz

Let us clarify first what is considered Shohin, what is Marne and what is Shito size. I have consulted quite a number of books, and here is what I found

John Naka

  • small or Komono: 10cm to 17.5cm Mame three or four should fit into one hand "In Japan today shohin is used rather than Mame."

Gill Taylor-Duxbury

  • Mame up to 15cm Shohin to 30cm Yoshimura: miniature size up to 5cm, small up to 15cm, medium to 30cm

Peter Chan

  • thumb size or miniature to 5cm
  • Mame to 15cm, small up to 30cm

Rudi Adam

  • thumb or miniature up to 5cm
  • Mame approx. 5cm Shohin up to 10cm.
  • "as much as 50 % has been added to make them easier to grow."

Pieter Loubser

  • Shito or finger tip size up to 7.5 cm
  • Mame up to 10cm, Komono or Shohin up to 20cm.

Cape Bonsai Kai

  • small Shohin up to 10cm
  • Shohin up to 15cm
  • Komono to 30cm.

During a recent trip to China we found further variations. They appear to have two sizes, the small size limit being 25 cm in Taiwan and 7.5 cm in mainland China. Clearly there is no uniform definition, therefore I use "mame" and "shohin" interchangeably and Shito being reserved for the very small size "fitting several on one hand." We should actually not grow a tree to fit into a size bracket, because the tree may just require an extra 2 or 5cm. The only time the size matters is when we enter for an exhibition or competition where the size limits have been set. These categories depend on the decisions of the organizing club or body. Personally, I would like to see 10cm, 20cm and 30cm as a universal standard.

What species to use

There is a large variety of suitable species to choose from, both indigenous and exotic. We need species which have naturally small foliage, e.g. miniature elm, small leafed burt davyi fig, cotoneaster microphilla, cotoneaster microphilla cochleatus, most juniper species, some small needled pines, Lebanon cedar, Cyprian cedar. Or we can use species, which reduce their leaves easily, e.g. Chinese maples, elm, various figs, wild olives, zelkova, buddleja saligna, celtis, small leafed rhus burchelli (kuni bush) and many others.

Select species with care, some have a coarse growth and will not produce short enough internodes. It is also generally easier to produce short internodes with opposite leaves rather than with alternate leaves Remember that flowers and fruit do not reduce. Also, in a small tree, under 15cm, every fault becomes a big fault, such as unsightly scars, lack of nebari, bar branches or reverse taper etc.

Methods to start Shohin

Seeds and Small Cuttings

One year old seedlings are also suitable. If you have patience, this method will produce the best results because you have full control over size, style, branches, surface roots and trunk shape, however, it can take just as much time as a larger bonsai. When starting from seed or cuttings it is best to start a number of them. Depending on how the seed was lying in the soil or how the cutting formed its first roots, these can often be one-sided, therefore after the first year bare-root them and keep only the ones with even root distribution. Cut the tap root and replant in a container that is rather wider than deep. When 7 or 8cm tall, cut the tip of the apex to encourage side shoots. Don't use too large a pot or the surface roots may spread too wide and must be cut back for a shohin pot later, leading to unsightly scars.

Older material

By using older material and cutting it back, one can choose material with a good nebari and with deciduous material it is usually not a problem growing new branches.

However, the large scar from cutting down will take years to heal and the obvious step from the cut to a newly grown apex will never disappear completely. You could avoid this sudden reduction in thickness by tapering your cut, but this makes the scar even larger and you won't get any buds on this long cut area even after it has healed. In this respect conifers are easier since jins and sharis can be used to make a feature instead of a scar.

While one can get a tree with a thick trunk sooner with this method, there is obviously a new set of problems. Also one is unlikely to be able to use an existing first branch, since it is usually too thick, unbendable and has no taper.

Root cuttings

Some species are very easy to grow this way, particularly elms. They usually lead to interesting trunk shapes, but if used for shohin, inherent faults become permanent problems.

  1. They rarely have a good nebari or surface roots.
  2. The old root / now trunk usually has no taper.
  3. The old root, which is now the exposed trunk, will not have any buds for branches; all the growth will be at the top. This means a certain trunk elongation will have to be grown, the thickness of which has to catch up with the rest of the trunk.

Air layering

With this technique we could use the top of a tree which has too many faults lower down, provided the branch structure is close and dense with short internodes. The same applies to air layering a branch from a larger tree. In both cases one can see beforehand what one is getting. It is even possible to start some training in preparation for a future air layering. The only problem with this method is that one must have a good air layering technique in order to ensure even root distribution.

General Cultivation

When growing any size bonsai we constantly have to make decisions between opposite alternatives; an oversize, deep pot for fast development versus a shallow pot to grow the root mass for the correct bonsai pot; heavy feeding for fast growth versus slower growth to achieve small internodes; full sun for small leaves versus the danger of overheating the plants, etc. All these choices are even more critical for shohin.

Sun

During summer shohin certainly appreciate some shade cloth protection, or otherwise, full sun for only a few hours in the morning. Burning hot afternoon sun overheats the pots and "bakes" the soil leading to leaf scorch. Don't over-protect them, full shade produces large leaves.

Water

We water our trees morning and evening in very hot weather; during the dormant winter season maybe once or twice a week (in typical Claremont overcast weather) and once daily for the rest of the year.

Very small Shito or fingertip sizes are best placed in a tray with river-sand. Bury the small pots to their rim in the sand. This keeps the soil in the pots cool and moist and creates a favourable microclimate. The sand tray should have some drainage holes to avoid the little pots floating.

Soil

We mix the same proportions as for larger bonsai but sift coarser material out to get a finer grade mix. Stones that are too large take up valuable space in the small pot. Also finer sand or gravel will improve the water holding capacity. (lmm to 3mm).

Repotting

Rules for repotting are easy; you do it every year and you root prune at the same time.

Fertilizers

These are very important because of the small amount of soil.

With inorganic fertilizers there is always a risk of root burn because there is little soil to absorb, dilute and disperse the chemicals before coming into contact with the root tips. It is safer to use organic fertilizers with not too high a nitrogen content. But even these are best diluted to half the normal strength. The maxim of "weekly, weakly" is particularly appropriate for these small pots. Remember, we do not want vigorous growth, we only want to keep the tree healthy.

Pots

Not only are shohin pots cheaper, they come in a larger range. Pots with some decoration are perfectly acceptable, as is a larger range of colours. But don't go overboard, very brilliant colours are too overpowering. Beware, one can actually get hooked on collecting these small pots for their own sake!

Styles

Shohin can be grown in all styles including forests. Because of the size, many have only 3 branches, left, right, back and an apex. That is why their position is so important to the total image. Of course there is no limit to the number of branches, the limitation is the available space between lowest branch and apex.

Training

Pruning

Dorothy and I use the normal technique of allowing 4 or 5 leaves to grow, then cut back to one or two depending on the direction of growth desired. Take care when using sacrificial branches. They can easily overpower the tree itself, leading to die-back or producing large scars which take much longer to heal than with larger bonsai because of the smaller amount of sap flow due to so little active growth above the scar. This of course applies to all scars.

When repotting you need to cut the branches back further than the desired outline of the tree in order to allow for annual new growth. This is necessary in order to maintain the vigour of the tree. It is not easy to keep the small size and allow for new growth, but it is necessary. Otherwise after a few years there will be more and more dieback. So it is important at potting time to over-prune to allow space for new growth. Always remember, maintaining the health of the tree is more important than maintaining an arbitrarily fixed size limit.'

Wiring

This needs nimble fingers, tweezers and very thin wire. I use telephone wire or 1 mm aluminium wire. It takes patience and practice to wire a branch that is still soft and fragile and maybe only 3cm long, but fortunately it is not necessary to wind the wire firmly around the branch. It is usually quite sufficient to wind it in loose loops. This also avoids possible wire bite if you should forget to remove it.

Shohin have a charm all of their own. If you have not tried them, then I hope that these tips will help you on your way. Apart from taking less space, I find working with them great fun. While I may spend 3 or 4 hours on one large tree, I get through 6 or 8 little ones in the same time. It is very rewarding and great fun!

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Random Bonsai Tip

Straightening training wire - For those who don't know and for those who have forgotten - to straighten training wire that has been removed from a tree, grasp each end of the wire with a pair of pliers and jerk apart. Alternatively, grasping one end of the wire in a vice, and the other with pliers is much more effective as then it is possible to rub the shaft of a screwdriver up and down the wire getting rid of the small bumps.