First Curator's Blog

FIRST CURATOR'S BLOG: My First Six Months as a Curator’s Apprentice

As we crawl toward the end of the summer and into the beginning of fall, I look back on my first day at The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum in March. They say, “Time flies when you are having fun,” and I very much agree. Caring for and working on bonsai full-time for the past six months has been even more amazing than I could have imagined. Since my first day, I have met many talented and friendly bonsai artists from around the world, from whom I have learned specific design and horticulture techniques for various species.

Andy Bello with Michael Hagedorn on World Bonsai Day 2019 at the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum

Andy Bello with Michael Hagedorn on World Bonsai Day 2019 at the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum

I took some time off and traveled to Bremerton, Washington, where I had the privilege of staying and working with Dan Robinson – a seasoned bonsai professional – for a little over a week. I also visited with Aaron Packard, the curator of the Pacific Bonsai Museum and former assistant curator of The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum. I learned and shared ideas about bonsai with artists who influence my personal work. I experienced and gathered inspiration from the wonderful ancient trees that still exist in the Northwestern United States. 

Bello prunes a Korean black pine with a nice view at Elandan Gardens in Bremerton, WA

Bello prunes a Korean black pine with a nice view at Elandan Gardens in Bremerton, WA

Working on the trees in the National Collection has been an extremely educational and enjoyable experience. I have worked on a diverse collection of species, while also learning when and how to apply different techniques, including when are the best times to prune, wire, fertilize and repot, depending on the season. My favorite seasonal tasks thus far are repotting in the late winter and early spring or decandling or removing spring growth from red or black pines to stimulate a second flush of growth in the summer.

Working on trees donated by prominent figures in bonsai history – including John Naka, Saichi Suzuki and Bill Valavanis – has been a humbling experience.

Post decandling on Japanese black pine ( Pinus thunbergii ) donated by Saichi Suzuki

Post decandling on Japanese black pine (Pinus thunbergii) donated by Saichi Suzuki

Thinning and structural pruning on the “Yamaki” white pine ( Pinus   parviflora )

Thinning and structural pruning on the “Yamaki” white pine (Pinus parviflora)

As I move into the second half of my apprenticeship, I hope I can continue to meet and befriend other bonsai artists and enthusiasts and continue to expand my horticulture and design skills. I will continue to share the wonder and joy of bonsai with the public who come to visit The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum.


Andy Bello

Andy Bello has been selected as the Museum’s 2019 First Curator’s Apprentice.  The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum's First Curator's Apprenticeship  for 2019 is funded by generous grants to the National Bonsai Foundation from Toyota North America and The Hill Foundation. More on Andy here.

FIRST CURATOR'S BLOG: Stories of Struggle and Survival

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When viewing old and ancient trees – whether they grow in a city, forest, desert or alpine slopes – one comes across stories of struggle and resilience. These stories are depicted in many ways depending on the species of tree, the characteristics of its wood and the environmental event that caused damage to the tree. 

Deadwood on bonsai is generally spoken about using the Japanese words “Jin,” meaning dead branch, and “Shari,” meaning deadwood on the trunk.

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Damage that results in the contortion of a tree can occur in bouts of extreme weather, like heavy snow, droughts, wind, lightning and more. Biological damage – events like animals grazing, insect infestations and human activities – also affect the contortion of a tree. 

All these impacts occur throughout the life of trees, sometimes over the course of thousands of years, like the ancient bristlecone pines in the White Mountains of California which have been dated to about 6,000 years old.

After the damage occurs, deadwood features can take on many different appearances, depending on the species and environmental conditions that the tree resides in. 

In wet climates, many deciduous species with softer wood may form large hollows due to rotting and decay. But the deadwood on many junipers in dry climates will be sun bleached white by the sun, resulting in a look that is naturally preserved for longer periods of time. 

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In bonsai design, deadwood adds interest and a “survival story.” Sometimes an artist might collect a tree that already has naturally occurring deadwood. But artists can also create deadwood by breaking branches, stripping away bark and carving wood using hand or power tools. 

Artists generally treat deadwood on bonsai with a solution of lime sulphur. This solution protects it from rotting and bleaches the deadwood, giving it a white appearance that contrasts well with the rest of the tree. Penetrating wood hardeners can also be used on the deadwood if a bleaching effect is not desired.

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Each bonsai artist can decide whether to create deadwood on all trees or leave the variation to certain species. The real beauty of bonsai is not whether the tree has deadwood features, but is demonstrated in each person's ability to create and share their view of nature from their own life experiences. Bonsai is an art, and with any art there is no right or wrong.

Andy Bello (Stephen Voss)

Andy Bello (Stephen Voss)

Andy Bello has been selected as the Museum’s 2019 First Curator’s Apprentice. The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum's First Curator's Apprenticeship for 2019 is funded by generous grants to the National Bonsai Foundation from Toyota North America and The Hill Foundation. More on Andy here.

FIRST CURATOR'S BLOG: Get Your Bonsai Ready, Spring is Here!

The buzzing of bees and the sweet scent of flowers fill the air at the Museum as the spring weather continues to bring us warm sunny days and refreshing rains. The buds on the trees are beginning to break and fresh tender leaves fill out what was a beautiful winter silhouette. Spring is an exciting time of year for everyone who enjoys the outdoors, although hardly anyone looks  forward to this season more than a bonsai enthusiast.

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After a long, cold winter of contemplating our many bonsai endeavors – like re-styling, keeping trees healthy and implementing new horticultural techniques – the bonsai enthusiast is eager for the last frost and the abundance of work ahead. Now that repotting season has started to wind down there are many tasks ahead.

Here at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum we have been bringing trees out of their winter protection and filling up our pavilions for the enjoyment of our visitors. This task is strenuous, but very rewarding, as the various areas of the Museum are revitalized.

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With the wonderful spring weather and new growth rapidly expanding, bonsai caretakers must carefully execute the task of watering. Fertilizing is also very important; one must start out with a humic acid and fish emulsion when the trees show signs of awakening from dormancy, then inorganic fertilizers can be used alternating with organic fertilizer.

These actions are both crucial to maintain the bonsais’ health and ensure exponential growth during the spring and the rest of the growing season.

Another very important spring task is managing the growth distribution of deciduous trees. As the new shoots expand outside of the silhouette of the intended design, they must be cut back to maintain the shape of the tree. However, one should avoid cutting back too much of the new growth, as that will drastically slow the tree’s future maturation. Instead, cutting the outer shoots and leaving interior branches to grow stronger will increase the strength within the foliage pad. This step is crucial when attempting to maintain the health of the interior branches and creating the smallest tree possible.

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As we move further into the spring season, make sure to keep up with work on your bonsai and your trees will continue to develop in the right direction. Although bonsai tasks might seem daunting and time-consuming this time of year, don’t forget to get outside enjoy the rest of the beauty that spring brings with your friends and families!

Andy Bello has been selected as the Museum’s 2019 First Curator’s Apprentice.  The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum's First Curator's Apprenticeship  for 2019 is funded by generous grants to the National Bonsai Foundation from Toyota North America and The Hill Foundation. More on Andy here.


My summer apprenticeship has certainly been keeping me busy, leaving very little time for these blog posts! As the waning heat of the summer transitions into the coolness of the upcoming autumn season, watering requirements begin to lessen there is a bit more time for pruning, wiring and other tree work. Here are some of my favorite trees from my recent work:

Eurya (Eurya emarginata) Continuous Tightening

This eurya from the Japanese Collection is one of my favorite bonsai on display in the museum. It has a very stout trunk that almost resembles the “sumo” style that seems to be currently in vogue within the bonsai community. I have to admit that I, too, enjoy this style and the power that it presents within the confines of these tiny trees. E. emarginata have small, glossy leaves when reduced, but they can grow to be quite large if the trees are allowed to run and gain vigor. Therefore, consistent pruning is required to maintain the tight shape and tiny leaves that we enjoy about this bonsai. I’ve now pruned and wired this tree a few times over the summer and have been typically following up a pruning with a pinching shortly after to prevent the energy from redirecting fully into the remaining buds and blowing the new shoots out of proportion. I’ve found that this gives quite dense and even growth throughout the developed pads.

Eurya before pruning work to tighten pads

Ezo Spruce (Picea glehnni) Post-Growth Season Pruning


After growing and extending all season, spruces can be cut back to shape. With these, we must be very careful to cut back to new buds to allow the cut tips to continue to grow in next years’ extension. I could locate good buds to cut back to across the entire canopy for the tree, so all the tips should continue to remain healthy while maintaining the crisp presentation intended in this tree between now and the next growth season.

I’m now in the final week of my apprenticeship. It’s been an incredibly busy summer full of new experiences, fun travels, and a ton of new learning. I’m very grateful to National Bonsai and Penjing Museum at the US National Arboretum for the opportunity to work on and develop my skills using some of the best and most prominent bonsai in the country, and I’m very appreciative of the support that Toyota has offered to the National Bonsai Foundation in supporting with funding for this wonderful apprenticeship.

Following the completion of my apprenticeship, I’ll be moving to a new home in San Antonio, TX, where I’ll begin delving into my own personal bonsai garden space while continuing my journey with bonsai. The climate in Texas will be entirely new to me and will present many new challenges to manage watering and sun exposure in the extreme heat of the summer, but compensates for those with a longer growing season to develop and refine material and a far milder winter season. I intend to continue sharing my work on social media and various online platforms, so please do not hesitate to send me requests if you’re interested in seeing how I progress and where I travel throughout my journey.

Thank you to everyone who has supported me up to this point.




When David Rizwan first saw a bonsai tree while searching online for plants to decorate his apartment, he thought there must be something “magical” about it.

“It’s a common misconception that there’s something mysterious there,” Rizwan said of bonsai. “There is a general lack of knowledge in the public, and I was a part of that – I didn’t know what was being done, I thought the trees were all special, small species, and it wasn’t something that a normal person can just do.”

Nonetheless, he was hooked, and took a deep dive into bonsai. He watched hundreds of YouTube videos on bonsai to learn everything he could about how “normal” people could possible create such an other-worldly work of art.

His personal collection quickly went from one Trident Maple to more than 60 trees before he was forced to “downsize.” His love for bonsai eclipsed all else, even prompting him to put his career as a quality manager and engineer in the medical device industry on hold to apply for the First Curators’ Apprenticeship at the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum.

“I put my career on hold to have more time for bonsai and fully immerse myself in the art,” he said. “Everybody thought I was crazy, but I firmly believed that wholeheartedly dedicating the time to learn and practice the fundamentals would set the best foundation for my artwork going forward.”

Less than three years after starting with bonsai, Rizwan is one month into his apprenticeship, and is pleased to confirm that no magical skills are required.

“Bonsai is for everyone,” he said. “It’s not a wealthy person or a magical person thing; it’s an everyone thing.”

The move also impressed his new team at the Museum: “David left a good job to work at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum,” said Museum specialist Michael James. “That’s priceless.”

Although he is relatively new to bonsai, Rizwan has already learned a lot – both in technical skills and life lessons. He said that he has experienced many ways in which bonsai benefits its practitioners – a better understanding of nature, strengthening of empathy skills, and taking a new perspective to personal relationships.

“Bonsai mirrors other relationships in life,” he said. “Sometimes you have to do something that isn’t immediately as pleasant, but knowing that the future outcome is worth the temporary sacrifice. It’s that same feeling when cutting off a branch that isn’t quite fitting well, knowing that its removal will allow another branch to develop that will carry the design forward one day.”

In addition to getting more experience working with the high caliber of historic specimens at the museum, David hopes that this experience will help him further his goal of making bonsai more accessible to the general public, and help them recognize that bonsai is something they can do and benefit from.

David encourages visitors to come to the museum in each season to experience the breathtaking way that bonsai trees can change throughout the year, and to see different highlights from the collection.

“There’s only a fraction of trees on display at any given time,” he said. “Visitors should try not to get a false sense of lack of diversity if they just see lots of pines and maples. Visiting throughout the year will allow you to experience very different things in the collection, and in individual trees themselves. The same tree experienced three months apart can be drastically different, and each season has its value.”



This Bougainvillea Glabra, while the same exact species as the tree in my previous post, has flowered consistently from April until now, and it does so every year.  Many flowering shrubs or trees tend to drop their flowers in intense heat. Considering the humidity, much of last week and earlier this week were said to feel around 110 degrees Fahrenheit.  Yet this amazing tree has been cranking out colorful purple bracts and white flowers like it was getting paid to do so.

In case you were wondering, the teabags on the soil surface on different trees are filled with fertilizer. It is a common method of feeding trees, because you can target specific areas that need heavier feeding than others. The teabags do not wash away during the wind, rain or while watering. Also, it makes it much easier to remove the old fertilizer when it has become depleted. The last thing we need is a bunch of granules of useless fertilizer clogging up the drainage and negatively affecting our soil integrity.