Hats off to Uncle Albert

They always told me when you get older time seems to pass much faster. I have no idea what constitutes ‘older’ but time now seems to pass me by like money slipping through a politicians hands. Bonsai is very good at marking time for us or, should I say bonsai is very good at making us aware of how little time we have. I remember when I started all this malarkey thirty years ago I had real problems getting to grips with how slow trees grow and how long it was taking my trees to develop into bonsai. In retrospect it was the fact I did not have enough trees to work on and those I did have i was intently busy killing, slowly. With two to three thousand pots now there is literally a lifetimes work here for a small band of workers and we will NEVER be done with it. The great advantage of so many plants it that some just lounge around developing really nicely all on their own without my bothering them. Sometimes bonsai need to be left alone and, assuming you kept some piccies, the rate of progress can, on occasions, be quite alarming. These days a lot of trees I had a hand in starting as bonsai are in the hands of good folk who like to look after them and once in a while they come to visit.

One such visit happened today, a sabina juniper I sold last year came back to see me and get a hair cut. To see the original story go back and read – Demo’ Result & A Dumb-ass Deal.

I am still reeling from my own stupidity and now I have salt in the wound. My good mate Tim (aka Uncle Albert ,now 85) does a very good job looking after trees when he’s not torturing them having gone away on holiday for two weeks in the summer. That being the case I was very happy to see this sabina juniper return looking so hale and hearty. Since my demo’ back in May 2016 no work has been done on this tree other than careful siting in the garden and water management. Over that period the tree has had chance to settle itself and recover, make foliage, wood and roots. The result is a tree where the wiring has done it’s job and once removed everything is staying in place. The tree is drinking water and the beautiful foliage is soaking up the sun  producing lots of energy for more growth.
Now that the tree has filled out so well and settled down we can take a small step forward. Today there was insufficient time to prune the foliage as much as I would like but then, in the UK, I have found that taking away too much foliage from a juniper will put a crimp in it’s ability to develop further. Now is also the time to review the style of the tree. We have removed the larger wire and taken out a couple of branches that are no longer required which has helped balance the design. We started thinning the foliage and cleaning the underside of the foliage pads. Finally, as the tree has done so well and been in this pot for five years I was happy to make the move to a more maneagable pot. Early autumn seems to be the best time for this where a sabina juniper is concerned. These is no need to go mad at the first re-pot, it’s not required to strip out all of the old soil, every time I have done this in the past  junipers go into serious decline and often take several years to come back. Just a little tickle around the sides and the bear minimum of root reduction. This tree will never notice the difference and will maintain it’s momentum.
I am very resistant to putting trees into bonsai pots. I have said before that putting a tree into a bonsai pot does not make it bonsai, just like living in a garage does not make you a car. Bonsai pots look nice and help us to slow the growth rate of a tree in order to achieve beautiful refinement. In most instances putting an undeveloped plant into a bonsai pot means it will never develop well or reach it’s true potential. Save bonsai pots for bonsai trees! That’s the secret to this junipers amazing development over the last eighteen months. It’s nice to feel we are getting somewhere with our bonsai and the secret by and large is not to do anything unless your tree is ready, what YOU want to do is entirely immaterial and irrelevant. For me the joy of bonsai is the process not the result but if you fall in love with the process and master all it’s complex elements your trees will be more beautiful than you could ever have imagined. My bonsai came from a love of nature and the magic of our natural environment only exists in the absence of meddling humans. Creating a little piece of natural magic in a pot ultimately means we have to allow it to happen, not get in the way. Once finished there must be absolutely no evidence our intrusive hands were ever involved. Sadly many bonsai we see, and those that get the most attention, are overly affected by those meddling hands creating pretentious, loud and showy images that are far removed from what nature, and time, left to their own devices created that inspired us in the first place. It’s very easy to get bogged down in the noise and clamour and suffocate ourselves in the complexities of technique. The plants we have for creating bonsai desperately want to be beautiful and, by and large, all we have to do is let them. Learn to be a gardener, outside in the sun and rain, and forget the rest!
G.

May 2016, cleaned up ready for working

May 2016 post demo’.

Autumn 2017 and ready for some more work

A very light prune and a couple of branches removed result in a more open balanced appearance.

A little tickle around the roots and into a pot. Amazing what largely doing nothing can achieve.

Time To Get To Work

In the UK summer is such a precious commodity we have to squeeze every drop of goodness out of it. By and large we don’t work trees over summer except for a few maples and the constant pruning back of fast growing broad leaf varieties. Making the most of that tiny handful of long warm days so our bonsai make the most growth possible, by and large, means leaving well alone other than watering and fertilising. After thirty years of constant disappointment in the summer weather I have come to the point where I am just thankful for small mercies.

This summer started of with GREAT promise, an early spring, beautiful clear sunshine and temperatures ten degrees warmer than normal. Living near the coast the spring is typically much later arriving than it is inland but by June this year we were in the twenties and I don’t remember that happening before. All this bode well for what is traditionally the hottest period of the year here, July to mid-August. A couple of days into July I opened the door early in the morning only to be greeted by a slight chill (normally happens at the end of August), the first harbinger of autumn. Incredibly since that day the temperatures have been falling. In thirty years cultivating bonsai this is the first time I have seen autumn colour in August! I kid you not, we had trident maples turning yellow and red nearly a month ago. The parthenocissus on the garden fence is, as I write, turning red at least five weeks early.

Being a glass half full kind of a fellow ( ?????? WTF) and putting a brave face on the cruel British climate we may have lost some growing days but at least we can get to work a bit earlier this year. Because trees are busy growing in summer we always wait until that’s all over before we begin working lots of our yamadori into bonsai. That way we have a lot of new foliage to use and the trees energy levels will be high. I normally have a pretty frantic autumn trying to get a bunch of trees worked whilst getting ready for ……..CHRISTMAS (yes you heard it here first in 2017). However this year I have started a month early with this evergreen Barbary oak.

Lots more to follow this fall.

Also a nice Sabina juniper from last weekends workshop.

G.

 

Where’s me tweed ?

Anyone who knows me will know that next to bonsai and my family my great passion in life is motorcycles. I have been very blessed to be able to assemble a nice little collection over the last few years. I thought it was high time I put one to good use and so this weekend will be joining thousands of riders around the globe on the Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride. Raising awareness and funds for men’s mental health issues and prostate cancer. You may not have seen me in a shirt and tie before but if you are in the Bury St Edmunds area this Sunday it’s your big chance 😉

Please visit this great event if there is one near you or donate here.

G.

Had a great day and collectively raised over £12k for a very important charity. SINCERE thanks to those of you who sponsored me 😉 It’s not too late to donate!

DGR 2017 – Bury St Edmunds

Now back to work

 

End of The Line

Nothing lasts for ever (except politicians bulls**t) and so it is with the very first line of bonsai pots we ever offered for sale. These plastic pots are seen literally everywhere and it’s a sad day that they are no more. We have limited stock having bought the last of what was available so if you need some don’t wait or you will miss out.

What we have left is listed here Plastic Bonsai Training Pots

On the bright side we have been buying pots for next spring, so far well over a thousand pots have arrived and will be going up on our web site soon. Bonsai pot supply is becoming increasingly unreliable and expensive over the last couple of years as many manufacturers are changing production to more profitable items such as teapots. As a result there are fewer manufacturers, less choice, falling quality and increasing prices. We are buying up all the old stock we can find but expect to see prices rising for the foreseeable future.

If you are going to need pots for next spring start shopping early 😉

G.

 

 

Kaizen Bonsai Videos.

Just in case you missed it I have a lot of video content on Youtube and embedded right here. Most of those were made a few years back before we became as successful as we have now and before we got so busy. It’s not been possible to do anything for a couple of years now. Back then it was pretty much easy to do as you like and so I put lots of, what i think, is cool music on the vid’s. However that’s now become an issue (copyright) and so we have had to remove most of it. That’s left a lot of crap videos with even crappier soundtracks. I am so sick of dealing with Yt and their bullshit and having my content relentlessly ripped off that I will be removing all of the content over time.

One of the issues we had when making these vid’s back then was a 10 minute time limit imposed by YT. That left out pretty much all of the good stuff. A lot of the videos run to an hour or more in their unedited form. By and large we still have all the original footage and it would be nice if we could get that all put into a new production for folk to see. The problem I have is that I hate doing that sort of thing and am crap at it too. I also have full 12 hour days every day and don’t have a minute to give to such a project. Therefore I am looking for help…….

If you are a grown up sensible person with a proven track record of dealing with these matters, know bonsai and can deal with an opinionated asshole like me then we need to talk. Over the years I have been seen off, ripped off and peed all over by a large number of idiots so don’t be surprised if you are not initially welcomed with open arms.

Now theres a pitch for a project 😉

G.

 

New Bonsai Workshop Dates Autumn 2017

Pleased to say I have a few workshop dates for later this year. I came close to having a melt down earlier this year and decided to take a break for the first time in over 20 years. Now I have had a few weekends to myself, ridden a few miles and cut the grass and I’m bored with all that so time to get back to working weekends again. I may also have been leaned on quite heavily and being weak of will easily capitulated. I have just 5 dates and places, as always, are limited to four each day. Sadly due to having been taken for granted too many times I will now be asking for payment up front which pains me enormously.

Details are here Bonsai Workshops

Give me a call to book on 0800 4580 672

G.

What would you rather do?

New Bonsai Nursery Pots Now Available

Bonsai is all about growing. Growing is all about the perfect balance between sunlight, air, water and nutrients. I have been saying for a very long time now that bonsai is all about growing, if we had more gardeners and less artists the average bonsai hobbyist and his trees would be doing a LOT better. I spend a great deal of time every day talking with folk who are up to their Jacob’s in bewildering nonsense and half truths about how they cultivate and develop bonsai trees. So much of what has become ‘gospel’ in bonsai is based upon half truths borrowed from old fashioned horticulture and applied in the wrong way, at the wrong time to the wrong plants. I am currently (a year now) working on some articles that will open up the mysteries of bonsai horticulture and development but for now here is a good rule to remember…..Bonsai go into bonsai pots.

We sell a lot of raw material and yamadori for bonsai. It staggers and saddens me that the first question I am ever asked by folk that buy such materials from us is about how soon the tree can go into a bonsai pot. So, just to be clear, bonsai pots do not make bonsai trees. It’s a bit like living in the garage does not make you a car. The primary reason to use a bonsai pot is because it looks nice with a bonsai tree, a bit like a picture frame that sets of a nice picture. The secondary reason to use a bonsai pot is to slow the growth of a tree in order to help in the long term maturation and refinement of a bonsai tree. Raw material needs to be grown, and grown fast in order to develop root and branch structure, this process, especially with collected plants, is all about building vigour and strength which in turn means we can intervene in the plants progress in order to develop the shape we want. The harder a plant is growing the more often we can prune, wire and do all the other things we do to control the direction of growth. If a tree only grows an inch a year it stands to reason that we won’t be making any dramatic progress. However if that tree grows an inch a week we have a lot more options. I know that in some parts of the world astounding growth can be achieved regardless of the container used but here in the UK things are a little different and so we need to adopt special techniques in order to make the progress we need.

We have just received delivery of some new pots that are going to make life a whole lot easier for bonsai growers in less than ideal parts of the world……Meet the Ercole air pot.

It takes a great deal of time to create bonsai regardless of whether you are starting with seeds, cuttings, small plants or old yamadori. Ultimately the key to success is a good root system carefully balanced with just the right amount of foliage to fuel growth. The key to a powerful root system is dense fibrous fine feeder roots, and a lot of them. Sadly a bonsai pot is not a suitable container for the development of raw material into bonsai. A bonsai pot is designed to slow and restrict the growth of a tree thus easing the work required to keep the tree small. Always follow the rule, ‘bonsai go into bonsai pots’, never put raw material or undeveloped trees into bonsai pots, their future development will be SIGNIFICANTLY retarded and the process will take many times longer than in larger nursery pots. In all commercial bonsai nurseries across the world bonsai are developed, firstly in the ground, and then in nursery pots before being transferred into bonsai pots where just the final ramification and refinement is developed. We have found that developing trees into bonsai is best achieved with a relatively small diameter but deep pot, this will give the fastest growth rate. Accelerated growth is achieved by maximising the drainage of water through the root zone. Irrespective of the soil constituents used, drainage will always be better in deep soil rather than shallow soil, thus a deep pot will produce higher growth rates.

One of the primary draw-backs of conventional ‘flower’ pots is the tendency of plant roots to circle the pot. Roots naturally only grow down and forwards and after some time in a pot the roots can spiral around the inside often achieving several feet in length. The problem with this is that the white feeder part of the root gets progressively further and further from the tree, thus increasing transfer time of water and nutrients and reducing growth rates. In bonsai we prune the roots regularly at re-potting time which increases the density of fine feeder roots to counteract this effect. The problem with re-potting is the invasive nature of the procedure that can only be carried out at certain times of the year and requires a significant amount of time for the tree to restore it’s balance afterward, thus wasting valuable growing season activity. The efficient answer to this dilemma is what has become known as an ‘air pot’ which is an extremely simple but effective growth accelerating tool regardless of the plants you are looking to develop and grow. Roots naturally extend away from a plant in a search for water and nutrients, the little white end pushes it’s way through the soil relentlessly. If we can snip that tip off, the root will fork and divide behind the cut. This increases root density and the more little white root ends we can develop the stronger the plant will be. Using Ercole pots, once the growing tip of a root reaches the edge of the soil and emerges into the air it dries out and is effectively pruned and that is exactly how an air pot works.

From a bonsai development perspective these Ercole perforated pots are the ultimate growth enhancing tool. Light weight, space efficient, UV stabilised, cheap and infinitely reusable. Because of the shape and construction of the pot it is not necessary to go to the expense of using high quality free draining soil products. A finer more fibrous medium is still going to drain water efficiently. Therefore a relatively cheap growing medium can be used, bark, peat, coir and even regular garden compost will work really well. Because the pot is taking care of root pruning it is not necessary to keep re-potting and messing with the root system, plants can stay in these pots for several years and each year the growth rate will accelerate. At the time you are satisfied with the development of your tree the re-potting procedure is simple because the roots will not be encircling the rootball, it’s just like re-potting a well maintained bonsai tree.

If you are out collecting trees or rescuing skip rats, Ercole pots will offer dramatically increased survival rates and promote rapid re-growth. If you need to restore the vigour and health of tired old and neglected bonsai trees just two or three years in an Ercole pot with a good fertilising regimen will work wonders. Ercole pots are the perfect choice for developing starter trees as bonsai and given correct horticultural practice will produce growth rate similar to what might be achieved in the open ground.

 

LARGE NURSERY POTS FOR BONSAI

For a long time now we have been selling our popular little Bonsai Nursery Pots. These only go up to 14″ diameter but now I am pleased to say we have managed to source some larger sizes, Large Bonsai Nursery Pots, are available in 15″ 20″ and 24″ diameters. These are a common sight in Europe but much less so here in Blighty. These super tough pots will last for many years and offer a great balance of being fairly shallow whilst offering a good soil volume to promote strong growth. Plastic pots are super light weight, UV stabilised plastic, frost resistant and look a lot better than old chopped off barrels and hastily cobbled together wooden boxes made of pallets that weigh a ton and fall apart after a couple of years. Buy some to hold ‘in stock’ you never know when you are going to stumble across that skip rat that needs a big pot.

G.

 

Name Your Own Price

NOW SOLD. THANKS FOR ALL THOSE OFFERS.

Part of the problem with the bonsai business is that, at least as far as plants are concerned, there is a very limited supply. It’s not possible to walk into some mystical superstore reserved exclusively for commercial suppliers and fill your boots. We can’t just buy what we need when we need it and here in the UK with the plant inspectorate acting like some Gestapo-come-lately, bonsai supply via importation is becoming increasingly precarious, particularly since the inception of ‘destructive testing’. Obviously the brain child of someone educated beyond their intellectual capacity. ph.D. = Post Hole Digger !

The nett result is that we have to buy what we can where we can. I have been going a bit nuts this year buying bonsai. So far three lorry loads of yamadori and multiple private collections. When buying the latter we usually buy everything including the benches and on occasions that means obtaining items we didn’t really want and that brings me neatly to the point of this rambling post……..

I have a personal dislike of bonsai ‘group’ or ‘forest’ plantings. It’s not that they are bad it’s just that they don’t float my boat in any meaningful way. However we know a great many folk love working on these types of thing particularly since they can offer great value for money. Earlier this year I bought a big collection of bonsai which included this massive forest of Japanese larch. To be honest I bought the pot and planned to bin the trees. Since that time however I have taken a softer view as several folk have expressed admiration for this old group. I have no frame of reference as to how we should price this and so I thought it would be a novel idea to ask for offers.

The tree measures approximately 34″ tall and 50″ wide. The pot is a nice, good condition Chinese stoneware item. The tree is available exactly as you see it here. We can ship, most parts of the UK will cost around £60 by wooden crate on a 2-3 day service. Bear that in mind if you want it delivered. Collection from us in Gt Yarmouth is ‘Free’ in the parlance of ebay which, of course it’s not unless you have a car that moves around on thin air with no road tax but, I digress.

I can easily realise £250 for the pot and am entirely open to offers above that figure. Just make a comment below with your offer, these won’t be made public, alternatively give me a call or ping an email. Comments will close and the offer will end in 30 days. If in the meantime I get a blinding offer the tree will go because we need the space desperately, you snooze you loose! I’m not interested in stage payments or Px on this one, first with a payment gets it. I obviously reserve the right to refuse any offer and a brusque response awaits insulting offers from chancers 😉

Our usual T&C apply.

G.

This Could Take Some Time

A few years ago i ran a series of articles in the bonsai magazine telling the story of some trees over their ten year journey from collecting to becoming bonsai. After nigh on thirty years of working with collected trees I am adamant that, in the UK at least, ten years is pretty much the minimum time it’s going to take to develop what can legitimately be called a bonsai tree. Of course that entirely depends upon your definition of bonsai. What I mean is a tree that holds it’s shape without the need for wire. A tree that has primary, secondary and tertiary branching and with dense ramification on top of that. If it’s a deciduous tree it should look it’s best without leaves. In general the tree should have good balance throughout with uniform foliage and equal development between all parts of the tree and in particular between the upper parts of the tree and the lower branches. Branch structure should display good taper with the primary portion considerably thicker than the secondary portion and so on. Lower branches should, in general, be thicker than the ones above. In his respect I make no differentiation between broadleaf or conifer trees, evergreen or deciduous. Now I know someone is going to cite the case of some gnarly old piece with only one branch or some contorted mountain tree and unless you want this article to run for the next thousand millennia you will have to allow me a little lee way to generalise.

In my professional estimation and experience I would generously suggest that only about two in every ten thousand trees that are collected become bonsai as defined above. The reasons why so few trees make it through the process are many, it is a difficult process after all. But, the primary reason is that most folk do not know how the process actually works. It’s no indictment on any individual but it is a fact that people who know how this actually works are VERY few and far between. I would not say I know the process in it’s entirety but I have picked up a few tips along the way and here I am hoping to pass those along for the benefit of those of you determined enough to read through this entire diatribe.

To develop a bonsai tree from raw material takes time, obviously. The trouble is particularly when we start out we do not actually know what bonsai IS. Some smart-arse always pops up at this point and says “a bonsai is a tree planted in a pot”. That’s a bit like saying a lawn mower is a car, it has four wheels, a motor and it will take you places. If you want to ride around on a mower be my guest…… Suffice to say that we are talking about producing a high end executive car here not a Flintstones clunker. Not everything that is called a ‘car’ is that good just as not everything we call bonsai is that good. I have sold an 8″ bonsai for £30, I have also sold an 8″ bonsai for £1800, one was three years old, the second was in excess of 30 years old. Sadly many folk in our hobby are not too discerning and like many things today most of the quality has gone in favour of fancy glitzy good looks simply because it is very easy to make something that looks good but it’s very hard to make something that actually IS good.

For decades now I have purchased my underpants from Marks & Spencer. They last me years, i have pants older than some of my readers. I am no slave to fashion and so a carrier bag full of skivies works for me and lasts indefinitely, every now and again I need a top up so last year I ordered some. A month later all were completely knackered. As I have become older my personality may have become more abrasive but my arse certainly hasn’t, ‘things ain’t what they used to be”. To quote a phrase, ‘Never mind the quality feel the width my son’.

In order to create beautiful bonsai the primary skill required is not that of an artist but a humble gardener. Knowing how to develop the shape of a bonsai tree comes very naturally if you have a deep understanding of the tree and how it grows and responds to the world around it. Besides that, trees just want to be beautiful and so all you have to do, by and large, is give them the chance and a few pointers. The skills required to do things like carving and wiring are very easily developed by simple practice. If you have tried hard but still not achieved what you hoped it’s just a matter of more practice, don’t be discouraged just keep going and NEVER stop working at getting better. Some folk will get there quickly whilst others will take a lot longer. However, if you stop trying it’s all over. Developing the skill of a plantsman is more reliant on careful and precise observation and a good memory, that coupled with practice of course. Over the thirty years I have been growing plants in pots, and all of my 53 years, I have been around plants and gardening and i can honestly say that now, with that solid base of knowledge, I am learning more every year than i was at any time in the past. More doors open, more possibilities present themselves and more is becoming possible than I ever thought. I am still experimenting but now I am, largely, past all the questioning and self doubt and have largely weeded out all the nonsense and silliness that was installed in my bonsai brain in my early years of being involved with the hobby.

There are two watershed moments in my bonsai career. The first was meeting Kevin Willson. I had been working hard at bonsai for quite a few years and my growing skills were developing but I lacked the wiring and carving skills I needed and was struggling on my own to make progress. That all changed quickly as Kevin and I gradually worked through my stock of appalling stumps. Within two years of relentless practice (5-7 days a week) I had developed average skills, at least sufficient to allow me to progress.

The second significant period was after I quit my job (to go cut grass). I figured that a qualification in horticulture would help me get work gardening. Little did I realise this would also set me up for life with my bonsai trees. It seems a stretch that studying turf management or bedding plant schemes would be much use but in fact this was THE most significant moment in my bonsai journey to date. Over my ten on more years cultivating bonsai at that time I had figured out a few things that worked. However once I had completed my horticultural studies I knew WHY those things worked and more importantly how to take those ideas to the next level. I have been on a horticultural elevator ever since.

They say that a bonsai tree is never finished, folk like to trot that line out regularly. The truth is that a bonsai tree is entirely finished once we reach the limit of our skills. Should that tree then go forward into the hands of a more skilled person it will, almost miraculously, get better. So here is the significant point.

If you are developing a plant into a bonsai tree it’s an ENTIRELY different discipline to that required to maintain a bonsai tree.

Once a tree becomes bonsai our job is simply to maintain it’s health over decades and allow it to mature in peace. With large old trees in very small pots this is THE pinnacle of horticultural practice, a very highly skilled discipline that basically enslaves you to your plants. You just have to be there for your bonsai or they will suffer and plants have a very limited capacity for traumatic suffering. There is a nagging little parasite in the bottom of most peoples brains that bonsai is in some way cruel, that bonsai are starved and abused and stunted. Let’s put the record straight, bonsai are NOT some poor malnourished rickety children from Victorian London destined to sweep chimneys and die in their twenties. Bonsai have the capacity to out live their keepers and also outlive their equivalents living in their natural environment. Technically, if your skills are up to snuff, bonsai need NEVER die. Sadly most trees outside of professional hands are dead within thirty years of beginning their bonsai journey. Of those, by far the largest portion are killed, an indictment on our horticultural skills. In the early days we have to chalk this up to the price of an education but it should be considered a stain on our reputation none the less.

The process of actually developing a plant into a bonsai tree bears almost NO resemblance to the process of maintaining a bonsai tree. I have never seen this explained satisfactorily in print. When I started all this there was no internet I could turn too (thankfully) so I was off to the local library. Those early books were, by and large, more use to veteran shoe makers than aspiring bonsai growers, they certainly contained a lot of old cobblers. I was always excited to get a new bonsai book and generally quite pleased to take them back to the library. Eventually I stopped borrowing the books and contented myself with reading my Nursery Stock Production manual and subsequently learning to read my trees.

Part of the trouble and reason for the mis-understanding of how all of this works is the failure of authors to put their explanations of technique into context. As it happens a great deal of what was written in those early books was aimed at those who owned mature bonsai trees. Most didn’t, but took the techniques and started to apply them to raw material. For instance, if you apply refinement pruning techniques to deciduous raw material you will get a great head of finely ramified twigs on appalling thin, badly shaped and undeveloped branch structure. The tree may look like bonsai when in leaf but once those leaves come off all is revealed. If you take the candle pinching technique for mature pines and apply it to raw material all you will get is a very weak tree largely devoid of back budding and thick dense foliage on the end of long thin branches. As I said, the process of developing a plant into a bonsai tree bears almost no resemblance to the regimen of maintaining and improving a well formed bonsai tree. The end game was a lot of frustrated folk that have walked away. My local bonsai club has gone through literally hundreds of members over the last twenty or more years simply because of an inability to teach the basics consistently. We can all argue until we pass out from lack of oxygen to the brain over the intricacies of styling a bonsai or what type of pot it should be in but there really ought not be any misunderstanding as to how to grow and develop raw material and the basic horticulture which underlies all that we do.

In bonsai circles everyone argues about which soil or fertiliser to use but the significant point is not which product to use but how to provide the plant with the air, moisture and nutrient it’s roots need. By studying the science and the horticultural practice it is VERY easy to arrive at the answer. Not to say that solution won’t be refined over time and with experience but the basics should be pretty cut and dried. If everyone just parks their egoes at the door those new to the hobby will benefit as we all will. Lets concentrate on the basics and get that right first before we go off trying to impress each other with our overcomplicated, highfalutin, esoteric ideas.

I have always said that before you go and ‘do’ some bonsai it’s important to know what it is we need to achieve. Never touch a tree unless your actions will help improve that tree in some way. Just because you own scissors it does not follow that you should be cutting something. When I was a kid my younger sister got a new pair of scissors. The evening in question she was being very annoying and bugging me for something to cut. As usual I ignored her and went on my way. Next thing I knew she had a hold of my new set of paint brushes and had cut all the bristles off them. Just because you have tools and time on your hands it does not follow that one of your plants should suffer the consequences.

So, all of that being said where do we go from here? When we set out to create bonsai trees the point is NOT to create something that looks like a small tree but to actually make a small tree, a subtle difference perhaps but significant. Think about that tree you have seen that stirs your soul, what is it that makes it so powerful? Forget stories about lightning strikes, tornadoes or being hit by the hammer of Thor, in order to recreate the magic we have to recreate the details. It’s pretty safe to say that the trunk is the primary feature of any tree but there are also branches, ramification, bark, deadwood, hollows and a myriad of other interesting elements. It’s the combination of all of these elements that make up the tree you love so much. However, more important than all of that is the roots, in nature there is an entire tree underneath the ground almost as large as what you see above the ground and without this hidden part nothing else matters. Here’s a catchy little phrase I use a lot to address a part of a tree that many bonsai folk forget, “Roots are important”. Get carried away messing with roots any you are going to be in trouble. Prune too much at re-potting time or apply too much fertiliser or too little water and you will quickly come to recognise how important roots are.

If you choose to develop a bonsai tree from a very small plant or even from seed (not recommended for beginners) the first thing you are going to have to do is build a trunk. Many times folk have been to my garden and seen big powerful bonsai trees and asked if they were grown from seed, I have no idea why anyone would think that, it’s possible but seriously, growing a 12″ diameter trunk from seed, particularly in the UK is the work of half a lifetime. It comes as a shock to most folk to realise bonsai are not grown from a small tree into a big one but are generally large trees that we turn into smaller ones. I have lost count of how many times folk have bought small Chinese elms from us and asked me how long it will take to grow into the larger size trees that we also offer. So, if you want a good sized trunk for your bonsai and only have a small plant you will have to grow that plant much bigger. How much bigger? How much trunk do you need? Think about it, ever seen a massive old oak tree with a skinny little trunk? A big tree needs a big trunk because it has to flow a lot of water up to the leaves and it also has a lot of weight to support. As far as growing a trunk is concerned you have to allow sufficient top growth to develop until the trunk is the size you want, depending upon what you want and prevailing conditions this can take anything from a couple of years to a couple of hundred years. When ground growing a trunk, the size of that trunk will be directly proportionate to the amount of top growth. Keep pruning the top growth and the trunk will never get significantly bigger. You can only grow a trunk by growing a trunk. Over the years I have seen numerous folk trying to grow trunks in the ground whilst simultaneously trying to develop branches or ramification and constantly pruning. The net result is very little improvement in the trunk size, poor quality branch structure and thick ugly ramification. If you want to grow a trunk do that in the open ground and only once you have the size of trunk you need should the plant be pruned and lifted.

The other way to get your bonsai going is to start with collected material, wether that be a stump from a hedge, skip rat or mountain yamadori. These sources can provide by far the best and most impressive material to create bonsai trees. This type of material is always totally unique and helps to shorten the process dramatically. However this approach often ends in failure because of a lack of understanding of how to establish the materials, more on that later. The beauty of collected materials is that a good sized trunk is available right off the bat and all that is required is establishing a root system. The downside is that we might get some challenging features, big cuts, poor nebari or reverse taper and some clever techniques may need to be mastered in order to deal with these. On balance my advice would be to start with this second category of material. If you have an inner need to grow a tree from seed wait until you have a few years experience with bonsai before giving that a go.

At this point we have a trunk, from whatever source. There may be a few rudimentary branches but not much else. This is the point at which many folk start thinking about bonsai pots, A BIG MISTAKE. A bonsai pot is the way it is, primarily because it looks good and should compliment our bonsai tree. In order for a bonsai and pot combination to look good it is important that the pot does not overpower the tree, therefore it has to be quite small and there is the rub, small pot equals small root mass which equals small growth. Our ‘trunk’ needs a lot of growing before we can call it a bonsai tree and a bonsai pot is in essence designed to stop a tree from growing significantly. ALWAYS remember, bonsai pots are for bonsai trees and NOT for bonsai material. If you are unsure wether your tree can be classed as a bonsai got back to the top and start again…

With any yamadori,  collected tree or ground grown trunk the best intermediate pot to develop the tree in is basically a plastic or terracotta  ‘flower’ pot. In general the smaller the diameter and the greater the depth the better. “Long toms” as they are known offer fantastic drainage whatever soil you use and they also present the plant with the chance to grow it’s root mass in a position that offers ideal moisture content. Simply put, higher in the pot will be dryer and lower will be wetter. This takes away a lot of the guess work in providing the tree with it’s precise needs allowing it to achieve optimal growth quickly. Also the small diameter means a dense compact root mass will develop close to the trunk which aids the transition to a bonsai pot later on down the road. Years ago the fashion was to grow material in flat wooden boxes, the theory being this would help develop a nice wide nebari. With the right pruning this might just about be plausible but in reality it did not make a significant difference. What a big box does ensure is that a large root mass will develop around the outside of the box but having the primary root mass far removed from the base of the tree means significant risk at the time this is reduced in order to get the plant into a pot. In my experience in this case a couple of intermediate progressively smaller containers are needed before a ‘bonsai’ root system is developed suitable for use with a bonsai pot. With a long tom style pot a dense close root mass is developed quickly and so long as thick ‘tap’ roots are removed at the correct time a flat nebari can still be developed effectively. Once you see the growth rate in these deep pots you will be moving a lot of trees into them. As a compromise most people prefer to use what is commonly known as a ‘bulb pan’, what we would call a Bonsai Nursery Pot. These pots are moderately deep, certainly sufficient to allow bonsai material to develop, they are light weight, look good and very cheap and a good all round compromise.