Dazed and Confused

I get a million phone calls and emails every day from beginners who are struggling to get their arms around keeping bonsai. Just last week I heard from a guy who told me he had started his bonsai collection, he had planted 70 bonsai seeds :-0 After some discussion he told me I was wrong and that growing bonsai seed was the only way to make bonsai. Another instance involved a maple we shipped out. The recipient was not happy because it had leafed out red when it was supposed to be green. I tried to explain that green maples often leaf out red in our cold climate but was promptly shot down. Another guy bought an indoor bonsai which died within a week. Despite admitting to not watering, it was still my fault and I was called some very unsavoury things beginning with F. Another felIow called up furious because after several weeks his bonsai looked all shaggy (it actually managed to grow). I can’t even begin to recount the endless tales of woe and incomprehensible nonsense I hear every single day. The tide of bullshit is simply inexorable. I just want to go and work on my bikes, people there are so much more knowledgable.

Back in the early nineties when I started bonsai things were much simpler. I went to the library (remember those!) got every book I could find and ordered every book they had listed. I read everything, got a bunch of plants and had a go. I failed a lot and the more I failed the more I learned. My failures were not ‘somebody else’s’ fault, they were the price of an education. I tried things I should not have tried and made some visually offensive trees. I killed a lot of plants, carved some to death and generally worked my trees into oblivion. That’s how you learn. Nowadays everyone lives in abject terror of making a mistake. Someone once told me the man who never made a mistake never made anything. I think safety nets are for spineless wimps.

I am an old fart now but I keep hearing we live in the “information age”. That being the case how come bonsai folk are mired in unfathomable ignorance? Because you are on my blog in the first place and have got this far I assume you want to know what I think. Firstly we seem to have developed a real aversion to risk, modern society is all about keeping us safe right? There is only one activity I know of that is entirely devoid of risk, being dead. What I love about riding bikes is that at any moment I could find myself all dead, a little excitement in an otherwise fairly dull existence. In an attempt to avoid the risk of failure many folk turn to the the ‘web of lies‘ for advice. Here anyone and everyone who has an opinion is free to express it. However in bonsai nobody has to qualify to have a voice, that’s why someone who discovered bonsai a week ago can call me a ‘dick head’ with impunity. The net result is many beginners and a few who are not beginners are in an absolute daze over what to do about anything and everything. I am yet to see an exposition on which end of a bonsai to put in the soil but I am certain it’s on a forum somewhere!

So what can be done? Bonsai clubs? More forums? Bonsai books? Workshops? Absolutely not. Here are my recommendations based on painful experience.

1. First and foremost, unless you love plants DO NOT get involved in bonsai. Bonsai is 95% horticulture not some poncey highfalutin esoteric art.

2. Get some plants, preferably native to your area. DO NOT buy bonsai, anything alive with roots is good. Get a LOT and set about working with them. Once you have killed the majority you will be getting somewhere.

3. Go get an RHS certificate in horticulture.

4. Buy a copy of “Principles of Horticulture” published by Butterworth Heinemann. read it cover to cover at least once a year.

5. Spend a small fortune tracking down ancient trees in your country. Visit them, sit quietly with them, photograph them and develop a love for them akin to what you might have for your mother.

6. Be prepared for a long haul with painful disappointments and a few highs. Bonsai is a way of telling a story and unless you have the correct experience and attitude towards those experiences you won’t be able to recount the tale. Bonsai is not something we own just to show of to our mates, it’s something we have to live. Given time bonsai becomes as much a part of us as our hair, which i am losing.

By way of a little encouragement I thought you might like to see some of my first trees I considered worthy of a photograph……



13 thoughts on “Dazed and Confused

  1. Hmmm, I do remember receiving a starter maple from Kaizen and was unsure about the red leaf when I expected a green leafed one. As ignorant as that might sound, I was (in my subsequent inquiry to Kaizen into what tree I was going to be working with) and still am happy to admit I am an absolute beginner. I gladly revel in my ignorance as it means I can ask stupid questions and might get informative answers, particularly if I get to ask someone like Graham. So I absolutely appreciated the quick response from Graham who put me straight and am happier to be the tiniest bit less ignorant on the subject. My impatience prompted the question in that, armed with a dangerously small amount of info, I read that the red leafed maples would take longer to grow and this would stunt my new found enthusiasm for growing bonsai. However, I am in this for the long haul (thanks to Graham’s inspiring videos) and have planted several trees in the ground which means I’m playing the very long waiting game

  2. Just found your videos and enjoy them tremendously. Would like to see some on azaleas and pines(tough subjects for me) if you perform work on these subjects. Most people haven’t the patience, true ability or love and understanding of plants to venture into bonsai. Instant gratification isn’t going to work with bonsai. Seeing the potential should be what drives someone. Keep up the good work sir.

  3. If it were not for you I would not be doing this, i’d still be in my crappy job. Your contribution to bonsai is immeasurable my friend. I really miss our time together pissing about with trees.

  4. I have now learned the real meaning of frustration. A lot of the blame is down to you Potts You fanned the flame of bonsai that had infected me. Now unfortunatly lbm [ not computer ] has taken the use of my hands and arms.BUT has left the bonsai bug in my head and heart total frustration. Have tried to get others infected but maybe they are immune or dence?
    So now I have to be content looking at trees that inspire and potential subjects that will have to stay wild.
    Love watching Kaizem grow and the videos . Keep up the good work but add a health warning to bonsai

  5. I adore your attitude but .Lastly I appreciate your explanation of what bonsai is all about. I am reading and viewing everything I can think of in regards to bonsai and I find that it connects me to how I already feel about plants In general. I recently purchased a small mound juniper with an awesome trunk… so I thought. So pruned away and it looked beautiful until I realized I was a bit aggressive. So I am.going to plant it into.my.garden.soil.and pray it will survive until next year and the year after AS well. If it thrives I may then try my hand at training it as a bonsai. My.attempt will be done with the know that this will be a few years not a few weeks before I accomplish what I see in the tree.
    I now find myself noticing all the potential for bonsai every where I look and can’t wait to try my hand at a collected specimen.

  6. I like you sir. (Thumbs up!).

    …although I have been ill a long most of my life (and realised some years ago bonsai was far more than I could truly manage well …though the obsession still flares up occasionally haha) I strongly respect your viewpoint.
    People are increasingly becoming so out of touch with their ‘wild’ past that they forget were their very food comes from.

    It saddened me as I was growing up that this was the case… and this age of misinformation doesn’t look like it is set to improve the situation.

    Thank you. you don’t need to be told what for.

  7. After spending the last week or so reading your blogs , watching all your videos and just staring at your work in amazement. I have been growing /caring for bonsai I have hit a wall of what to do next I have a few trees that potential. I just don’t have the knowledge to do so. I was curious to how you feel about giving some advice. Even just a little push in the rite direction or even a little inspiration Thanks James

  8. S’trooth – this is so true. I love growing things – anything from Veg to Acorns but as far as Bonsai is concerned ,seems there is only one way to learn and thats the hard way. I’ve grown loads of maples, okes ,pines and loads of other stuff (judas tree, poplars, cedars etc ) from either seed or hardwood cuttings and for every one thing i have that I’m proud to call a Bonsai , i have a load of others that are basically trees in pots and are about as aesthetically pleasing as the look on the face of a bulldog licking piss off a nettle !! – but hey, ho – they’re trees , they’re MY trees, and I would rather them be my “nothings” than some one elses !!
    Graham’s right in that the first love must be in horticulture ( gardening to me !!) and if you enjoy that , you’ll have fun and satisfaction even if your dear little bonsai attempt ends up looking like the dog’s dinner.
    Good luck all.

  9. Despite your advice not to buy a bonsai, I did, a nice little Lonicera Pileata which has performed just as you said it would. A modest little thing but I am pleased and thank you for that and for your service on my very small amount of custom. Very satisfied customer.

  10. Hi Graham i just wanted to say I have kept Bonsai for 20 odd years & in that time have had many dealings with you. & met you on once or twice. you have infact inspired me totally with your knowledge & sense of fun , Thank you. there are many foolish people about… not just in the Bonsai world Thanks again ..Paul.

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