For those who aren’t blessed with the dialect of the chosen, “stravaigin” is a good old Scottish term that means to wander about aimlessly – or as I see in the corridors of Reid Kerr on a daily basis, being a student. I am a great advocate of stravaigin and take every opportunity to do so. My spiritual home of Islay is a top-notch location for a good stravaig being as there are countless beaches and woodlands where to hurry would be an almost criminal act. To give you a flavour of life on Islay, I shall repeat the story of the Ileach who when asked by a Spanish visitor what the equivalent Gaelic term for “manyana” was, replied “Och we haven’t anything with that degree of urgency.” But I digress.

I was alerted early in the new year to a cycling challenge being run by Strava, an online system for recording your cycling and other activities. This event – the January Base Miles Challenge – asked people to try to ride as many miles as possibly in January and record them on the system. Now January is usually a dismal month weather-wise in the west of Scotland with it either being wet and windy or covered in snow and ice. Sometimes it diverges from this norm and is wet & windy AND covered in snow and ice. It is usually a month in which I seriously believe I was a creature that hibernated in a previous incarnation as it just seems like such a damn sensible thing to do. It is with considerable effort that I emerge each morning from under the duvet. A far better thing would be just to crawl in there after Hogmanay and re-emerge sometime around early March, although these days I’d probably have to factor in a pee break in mid-February. But I have digressed again. (Pauses to ponder if one can digress from a digression. Then realises I just did.)

So, after some initial grumbling I decided it might just be the butt-kick I needed to drag me out of my seasonal (mal)adjustment disorder tendencies and make me actually do some cycling wandering about. If I’m honest the initial grumbling phase lasted as long as it took for a clubmate to point out to everybody that of course I’d be doing it as statistics were involved. Not that I want to prove his point, but I signed up to the event in precisely 49.7 seconds at an average speed of 50 words per minute. Thereafter, essentially it was a matter of doing as many miles as possible in the 31 days of January.

Enter Scottish weather stage left.

I was going to say Scottish winter weather but that would imply it gets better in other seasons.

Two things were noticeable early on in the challenge: first, the top of the leaderboard was peppered with participants from sunny climes. Although we were not having a bad winter here in Elderslie, it was frequently wet and windy, and frustratingly it only ever seemed to be nice on work days. I managed to get out on to a real road on 11 occasions only, with the remainder of my 29 rides being done on the trainer. Now if you’ve read a few posts back you’ll know that I am the proud parent of a virtual reality trainer and boy did it justify its existence over the January weeks. I was able to transport myself to the Algarve sunshine and recreate several rides I did last May on holiday. I also borrowed some ride data from a friend’s Garmin and as a result I know have a degree of intimacy with the roads of SC that is unusual for one who has never been there. However, such legitimate cheating allowed me to ride a goodly number of miles (totally accurate as far as distance is concerned and reasonable accuracy on the recreation of slope etc) which I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.

The second thing I noticed was that some of the participants were posting rides of thousands of miles. In fairness, either the posters themselves or the system moderators got rid of the ludicrous claims. The eventual winner (from Adelaide) notched up 3,871.2 miles over 43 rides and looking at his stats, it is perfectly genuine. Even my rubbish ability at Maths can work out that the top three riders averaged 100miles per day, so quite clearly the event favoured those who had a lot of disposable time as well as decent weather. 😉 If only if only.

So how did I do? Well, between real life and vicarious real life, I notched up 753miles – some 200 more than I’ve ever done in a calendar month before. In terms of the rankings, I came 3112th out of 36327 participants, and 146th female out of 2241, so I was in the top tenth in both cases. My clubmate, Drew Thomson managed to top that though (no, not in the gals’ event) to come in in 1372nd place overall with 958 miles. Well done, Drew. Although it was really just a bit of fun, I am quite pleased with myself. I am not sure if it will have done anything fr fitness level or increased speed or power, but it didn’t do any harm either. I just wonder if the people doing 150 miles a day will keep that output level up. I wonder indeed if I can keep up my own output, but to be honest, I’d be happy with half of that total per month if it lets me get to my desired 5000 miles for the year. I’ll give it a damn fine try anyway. So even if it really is a Swedish word meaning “to strive”, I still intend to set the coordinates for a major amount of stravaigin.

Shohin off my shohin

Well the nights are definitely getting lighter and the rise of a couple of degrees C in the rain and wind makes me feel that spring is just around the corner. Hah! Anyway, but seriously. The weather has actually been reasonably kind in this area and we have had only a handful of really cold days and nights over the winter. As a result, my trees are looking a lot less bedraggled and woebegone as they have done in previous winters. Because of work commitments I am unfortunately unable to go to the Swindon show this year but I am really looking forward to the Shohin UK event at the end of March. Organised by Mark and Ritta Cooper and Bob Bailey, this event should be a highlight of the UK bonsai year. And actually having been asked to put a display into the event is something extra special for me. I am under no illusions about being a great bonsai artist, indeed I don’t see myself as much more than a practitioner who has a lot to learn. But I have come on a fair bit in recent years and requests to put a display into such a prestigious show do wonders for reassuring me that I am well on track.

To ensure that I don’t let the side down, I used the wet and windy morning to start some real work on the trees I intend to use in my display. The relatively mild weather allows me to do more than I would at this time of year, and the trees being under cover in the glasshouse is an added bonus.

Today’s work was on my Black Pine which is the tree I tend to favour at the top of my rack display. It is a powerful tree – exactly what is called for in that dominant position. It pushed out a lot of new buds last year and these have grown on well. Some of the older shoots were getting quite leggy and the new growth will allow we to trim some of them off and bring the growth back in towards the trunk. A little bit of directional wiring and a clean out of the older needles the tree will be ready to roll at the show. Here it is after today’s minor trimming:

Half dressed

Half dressed

I have not yet decided which other trees will accompany the Black Pine on the rack. I have identified several possibles but a lot will depend on what looks best at the time. Possible include these:

Gardenia - although it is limping its way through the winter a bit

Gardenia – limping its way through the winter

An old favourite - my Ginkgo which may have its new pot by the time of the show

An old favourite – my Ginkgo which may have its new pot by the time of the show

I also have a Potentilla that I have been developing over the past couple of years and is perhaps now ready for inclusion. It needs a bit of carving to get it up to scratch though.

Potentilla 1

Potentilla 1

I also have a second, smaller potentilla that I used in the BSA show last year. At that point it looked like this:

Potentilla before

but I have subsequently removed the back branch to open out the nice twisty trunk a lot and it is now sporting a new pot. It is already popping out some buds so should be in good health by the time of the event. I would lose the heavy moss though.

Potentilla 1

Another contender, although perhaps not this year, is this Yew:



I would like to do some carving though before it goes to a show.

For the sixth tree, I will use either my trusty cascade White Pine as the sixth tree. Here it is at last year’s BSA Exhibition:


but at some point I would like to use this fella who is too big for the main rack I feel.

Azalea neagari

Azalea neagari

So many decisions. But it’s good to have the ability to choose.

Tempus fugits like they say

Goodness it’s been a while – how very negligent of me. Now, where to start? Probably it would be best NOT to try and recount everything that’s happened post at a time, so here’s the whistlestop tour:

Me: had a wee encounter with a scalpel-wielding scourgeon in mid-December (2011 – I’m not THAT far behind!) Without going into the fine details it was a lady op that in hindsight I should have had ages ago as in one swell foop it removed so many problems along with a certain unused but bothersome part of my inner anatomy. And for once I was one of the lucky ones and experienced no pain – to the extent that I flagged it up as my only worry at my 6-week checkup as I’d read stories of women suffering for months on end afterwards. I was back up and walking (slowly at first of course) after a week and my maiden (inappropriate given that they’d just wheeched my maiden bits out) voyage took the form of two laps of Forrest Furnishings boxing day sale. Back on track now five months later but still with a bit swollen a belly. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it anyway.

Bonsai: British Shohin Association show went well and I got a Certificate of Merit for my display. Excellent

Bikes: loads of stuff to tell so over this week I will get sorted with the highlights.


Something for the weekend

Okay, not sure how many pervs that title will bring out, so if you’re expecting anything at all to do with certain rubber products, then please stop reading now because you’re just going be disappointed.

And so on to the real post: I had a very pleasant but all to short visit from an overseas guest this weekend in the shape of bonsai and Facebook friend Rob Kempinski all the way from Florida. Rob was over on a golfing trip to St Andrews and had accepted my invitation to pop round any time he was over. (Need to stop saying things like that- the buggers sometimes take you up on it. 😉 ) But a very welcome guest he was, and in the short time he was here, he experienced (and survived) an evening in the pub with the Clyde Valley Fliers Friday club. At his own request he experienced (and survived) what he termed “a typical Scottish savoury delicacy”. In the absence of anything vaguely resembling that from our culture, I treated him to a Gregg’s Steak Bake which, amazingly, he actually ate and which, even more amazingly, didn’t cause him to spend the rest of the day in the toilet being ill.

Now as an aside just because we were speaking of toilets, when I picked Rob up from his guesthouse in St Andrews, I encountered this rather splendid offering:

I'm lovin' the lavvy.

Rob also offered some practical assistance on a couple of my wannabe shohin that I haven’t done much other than water and feed this year. I have a potentially decent wee Acer campestre that was the bottom half of a failed air layer and also a shohin Hawthorn that I brought home from Daldowie six years ago after it had been assaulted by a JCB, completely uprooted and severd about eight inches up its trunk. I ahve been letting it develop some primary and secondary brnaches over that time period and it is approaching a point where serious styling choices need to be made. Just shows the value of not throwing anything away.
Anyway, thanks Rob for good company over the weekend.

Working on the Acer

Enjoying a visit to Craig Coussins' garden

The Big Girl’s Blouse

I have had my large satsuki azalea for around six years now, and as you can see from the first pic taken about three years ago, it has never disappointed in the flower department. In fact it flowers so profusely that I have become accustomed to referring to it as the Big Girl’s Blouse azalea.

However, it had grown too far outwards for my liking so I decided two years ago to start the process of bringing the foliage back into the trunk – a process which also necessitated losing some of the height if it wasn’t to look like some gangly teenager. This wasn’t a problem as the crown was ramrod straight which didn’t tie in with the curves of the rest of the trunk. Since it seems to thrive on good old celtic air, I took it down to North Wales where Kevin B assisted me in the early cut back.

That was in July 2009 and by the end of that summer, after a few further trimmings, it looked considerably slimmer and noticeably shorter.

It wasn’t at all bonnie-looking but I decided not to do any more to it that year owing to the “unpredictability” of the Scottish winter. Picture 4 shows how it looked in late August.

I had been told that it probably wouldn’t flower because it had been cut back the summer previously, but, just to show how hardy us big girls are, in the May of 2010 it tried its best to throw out as many blooms as previously. I kept a few for show but removed the rest of the buds as it was my intention to do further pruning in the summer of 2010.

I still wasn’t happy with the crown, so I set about taking it down even further and also pulling the rest of the foliage in even more towards the trunk. That happened in the July of 2010 and by the spring of 2011 it looked much better.

The tree was kept in the unheated glasshouse over the winters of 2009/10 and 2010/11, which is jsut as well as they were the coldest we’ve had for quite some time. However, it started pushing growth very early this spring and I relocated it to a sheltered spot outdoors in April. I also decided to be brave and remove a final section of the crown as there was plenty of new growth behind and to the front. At the end of April 2011 it looked as in pic 6:

I am relatively happy with the tree now but am not discounting further work. it still needs a fair bit of trimming rather than pruning to get growth where I want it, but overall I am quite pleased. I even allowed it some flowers again this year just as a well done. The last three pics show the tree on 30th May 2011:


Kev at work

July 2009

Growing a new head

April 2011

30th May

Flower detail


Pottering with Pitt: Hawthorn Raft/Cascade

In late 2008 I acquired a nice Hawthorn from Len Gilbert which I had admired for a while. In design terms the tree was stuck somewhere between a raft and a semi-cascade which was all very nice and pretty in itself. But being of the opinion that it had a fair bit of potential, I took it to the legend that is the Burrs Weekend in November 2009. It had always been in the game plan that the tree would go into something a bit special pot-wise, and after much discussion with that lovely man John Pitt, a progression plan was hatched.

Tree when I bought it from Len via Willowbog

I had been convinced that the tree had to lose at least a bit of its semi-cascade tendencies, and we tinkered with changing the planting angle. Several Burrs participants had suggested trying to make this into two trees, but I had always liked the tree as one entity. My idea for a pot was something that gave the impression of a tree with a stray branch that had clambered its way over rocks or a wall.

Enter John Pitt.

A sojurn with John in the less frozen wilderness of the Midlands in early spring 2010 resulted in a new planting angle:

Not as severe an angle change as originally thought, but still enough to give it more of a tumbling look rather than a cascade. And now, a full year later, the tree has been back to Pitt the Potter from the Potteries to get its new home.

Shortly after repotting

As always, John put a lot of thought and artistry into this “pot”, which is exactly what I wanted from the outset. I bought the tree originally when I was going through my schmaltzy period simply because it was a “nice tree” which had been created by a good friend. It also had, in my eyes, the potential to be that bit more than just a nice tree, but it was also my belief that by giving it more than just a traditional pot (however lovely that pot might have been) I could achieve a tree with a fair degree of uniqueness. This was necessary if I ever have leanings towards showing it since, as most readers will know, we are blessed over here in the British Isles with stunning Hawthorns.

I firmly believe that John’s pot has given the tree that very uniqueness, and I just hope that I can be as successful in my part of the exercise which is to help it develop the branch structure, ramification etc. that lifts the tree above the average, therein justifying its splendid palace of a pot.

On the day I picked it up from John - April 11th 2011

As it is of today 29th April 2011

Shaking sticks

Following on from the success of the recent practical workshop based “Shohin Off” event we are excited to announce plans for a new and improved show format for next year. We therefore extend a warm invitation to all bonsai enthusiasts to take part in our popular and enjoyable show in 2012. This event will be held at WIllowbog Bonsai on the weekend of 10th and 11th March 2012 and will be open to members and non-members alike.

For the exhibition section, as in previous years we invite individual exhibitors to display single trees or compositions of Shohin, Mame and Chuhin trees.

As we recognise it is sometimes difficult to put together a full 3,5 or 7 tree composition on an individual basis, we would more than welcome group entries. So we invite Bonsai clubs the length and breadth of the British Isles to put together a club composition featuring the best trees the members possess to form a collaborative effort.

But it doesn’t stop there. As a new, more inclusive feature to our show aimed at those of you who are beginning to reach the level where you would like to display your trees but are not sure of the final steps, we enthusiastically invite you to bring them along your small trees that you think are not quite show-worthy . As part of our continuing efforts to help improve the level of British Shohin Bonsai we will be offering the services of three leading names in the Bonsai world free of charge. Marco Invernizzi, Peter Warren and John Armitage will all be on hand to help you clean, moss and titivate your tree ready for it to be proudly displayed as part of a larger composition or as an individual tree in a special display area. This is an all inclusive event and we are aiming to show you the fun of participating in the BSA show and also help you to improve your trees and displays.

So do not worry if you:
• think your tree is not ready
• do not have the time to prepare your trees
• do not have stands, scrolls, accents
• are not a member of the BSA (only £20)
we are here to help with advice, moss and more stands than you can shake a stick at!

There will be the usual suspects of side-events, traders and of course the legendary Saturday Night meal and entertainment.

Please do put the date in your diary now. Further details will of course follow between now and the event. Looking forward to seeing everyone in 2012. Let’s get those sticks a-shaking.

Boncycling at its best

And so to some of yer actual boncycling; a 40 mile cycle up to the Swindon & District Bonsai association’s winter image show. Now, I’ve never been to this particular event before but the legends were growing and I felt it was time I did hie me to it.

So off we toddled for a weekend at me sister’s just down the road from the event (40 miles down the road) and on the Sunday I was duly deposited at the start of the road to Swindon. Now in a gas guzzler it takes a mere half hour as you can belt it up the M4 in no time. I had selected the back roads as, quite apart from the legal issues, the traffic around that part of the world is significantly heavier than we get here. When I set out it was overcast but dry and that was about the best I encountered throughout the ride.

The early stage was reasonably fast espite a bit of a headwind at times, and I made it to the outskirts of Swindon – some 35 miles – in about 2 and a quarter hours. Then, the fickle finger of fate intervened, in the shape of roundabouts. Lots of roundabouts. Roundabouts with roundabouts going off them. Roundabouts which had, seemingly, nothing coming off them except the road you just came up on. Despite several phone calls to Steve harleyrider Jackson who was already at base camp, it took me the best part of another two hours to reach the venue.

But when I got there I was treated to a very very special show indeed. Sadly I have no photograohic record of it but there are a number on the IBC forum (see links). The overall impression was of a well-organised show that had set its sights well above the usual quality associated with such an event. Well done to the Swindon folk for maintaining (and indeed enhancing) the quality of this show year on show. This is precisely the sort of event that pushes the bar of UK bonsai right up.

Next year I shall cycle there all the way from Elderslie.

Wee trees

Made it down to Wilowbog for a bonsai chat and a committee meeting. First time I’ve been there in several months and apart from being inspiring, it also made me wonder why I hadn’t been down for so long. made up for it all by buying a couple of new shohin. I got a Cuphea which is an unusual species for bonsai and one which I have absolutely no experience of. The other is a Pinus mugo – easy to bonsai and I had one some time ago which I sold and then regretted. I will post a picture of the Cuphea once it comes into leaf and then again when (hopefully) in flower, but I have done very little with it other than a quick trim and a bit of a wire down. I did an extensive needle pluck and trim of the Mugo. Here they are:

Mugo pine


The mugo after some work

To cap it all…

A strange week all in all. Work, in the shape of additional tutoring sessions owing to imminent exams and panicking pupils, kept me off the bicycle in the early part. Then, my planned outing with the Oxymorons (that’s a reference to Walkers Cycling if you haven’t bothered yourself to read my previous post!) literally came to a halt 100 yards up the road when my tyre mysteriously flattened. To add injury to insult, this brought on a migraine type headache of gargantuan dimension, involving projectile vomit and a weird vision pixellation of the sort you had to pay a lot of money to experience in the 60s. It also curtailed my Johnstone Wheelers outing today as the pain has not quite departed yet. I am reminded of the classic description of the two phases of seasickness: stage one is when you are afraid you are going to die, and stage two is when you are afraid you are not.

And so, Dear Reader, I fear I must fall back on the old diarists’ response when faced with a week of not a lot to say: I’m going to say not a lot but say it at great length.

A thread over on the Internet Bonsai Club raised the issue of a plant that calls itself “lucky Bamboo” which in fact is neither lucky as it dies with a certainty and a degree of melodrama best reserved for the baddies in a John Wayne western, nor is it bamboo, being part of the Dracaena family (Now, should I have ticked the Flora box as a further classification for this entry?). Nor is it a bonsai despite being sold in countless garden centres and stores as such. It is, IMVH(and not at all biased)O, an abomination on a scale with all forms of extremism or intolerance, or with Andrew Lloyd Weber getting prime time TV slots to recruit staff to his latest insult to music. However, the story:

I overheard a wonderful conversation between two members of the public in my local IKEA a month or so ago, where this “lucky bamboo” is sold as a bonsai. The conversation was along the lines of “it must be a bonsai because it’s small and it’s in one of they (sic) shiny pots”. The chat then got round to the issue of cruelty (with the female stating that the “LB” would grow to about twenty metres high if it wasn’t so cruelly inhibited) before veering off into a decision to buy a fairly hideous s-shaped Ficus because that was a “proper bonsai”.
It was a choice between walking away and running them over with my trolley. But as I was carrying glassware I opted for the former.

Quite apart from the “it’s not bonsai” aspect, I cannot stand lucky bamboo for the totally irrational reason that it reminds me of asparagus which I couldn’t hate and detest more if it were cyanide.

For no reason other than catharsis, I shall tell you that my other flora related irrationality is Hydrangea. I detest this for the very adult and mature reason that it reminds me of the swimming cap my mother made me wear when I was younger but old enough to be very aware of what constituted “cool” and what did not. The swimming cap had rubber “florets” which wobbled about much in the same way as Hydrangea petals do. And it was sweetie pink! Cool? Not on your nellie! It was almost as uncool as the early swimming costumes which were made of that hideous ruched fabric which increased its weight at least tenfold when it came into contact with water. I am sure whole generations of Scottish schoolchildren learned how to swim simply to avoid instant drowning at the hands of their own swimwear. The hydrangeal swimming cap, btw, met its (literally) sticky end when I discovered why manufacturers put the instruction “Do not cover” on radiators. Nothing deliberate about that at all! And this momentous revolutionary strike on my part was followed not long after by a major breakthrough for equality when the powers that be in leisure centres suddenly recognised that, wonder of wonder – who’d ever have known? – boys carried nits and headlice too, and rather than tackle the issue of making boys wear swimming caps “head on” (sorry!), they took the softie route and just made the offending garment optional. Pity. I’d have loved to have seen some of the great hairy bears of blokes that frequented the Hector NcNeil baths in Greenock wearing hydrangea swim caps.