Be Careful What You Pick Up

I write long. The trouble is an idea comes into my head and in an attempt to capture it I write it down. A new idea or notion combines with an old one and before I know it I am off on a tangent to who knows where. Being immersed in bonsai all day every day and talking to people all the time and giving advice is fertile ground for new ideas to sprout, weeds too. I have hundreds of pages of text on my old MAC now and sorting them out is a bit dull, at least to me. Earlier in the year I sat down to write an article on how to really get bonsai growing and developing. I obviously started in the wrong place but the resultant first couple of pages turned into a waffle about how to learn bonsai. Thinking about it here perhaps this SHOULD be the precursor to an article on growing plants. Sometimes we have to part company with poor ideas in order to progress. I will let you judge….

In the first paragraph I refer to an ‘old fellow’. I was heart broken this week to discover he died recently. This grumpy old man really helped me into my bonsai life and belongs to a very few other ‘old fellows’ to whom I owe a great debt. Treasure the old folk!


Back in my early days of discovering bonsai I was lucky enough to share the company of an old fellow who had been around then for as many years as I have now. We were off on one trip or other and discussing his route to enlightenment. Years before he had been lucky enough to spend a considerable amount of time with, what would now be considered, one of the Britain’s founding fathers of bonsai. After much discussion and recounting tales of daring-do my friend pointed out it was not all it could have been. In a flippant but poignant moment his mentor had let slip “ Of course I only pass on what I want you to know, and don’t expect to find out what you really need to know in my books either”.

At the time this made me very angry. After all my friend was spending large gobs of both time and money in good faith in order to further his bonsai skill and knowledge. However, having spent twenty five years in the saddle now I am a little more understanding but I still think the position the teacher took is on one hand abhorrent and on the other very sad. Bonsai is not a competitive sport, it’s a quirky pastime largely enjoyed by a few ‘special’ folk. However at the moment bonsai becomes a matter of pride and the need to ‘beat’ others takes root in our soul the writing is, by and large, on the wall. I have seen more folk lost to bonsai because of a need to be better than others than for any other reason. The problem being that no matter how good your bonsai are there is always going to be someone out there with better. This will sow a seed of dissatisfaction that will, in time, grow up to strangle our love of bonsai. Ambition and the need to compete is a strong emotion in most of us but, as with all emotions, if not held in check it can eat us alive.

People fail in bonsai for any number of reasons. Number one is because they lose trees. If you have ever spoken to the public about bonsai you will have heard “Oh! I had a bonsai once but it died”. My retort is always “It didn’t die you killed it”. Which gets a stern face in reply before I explain, as I have a thousand times…. Bonsai are just plants and have simple needs. Light, air and water provided in the right proportions under the right conditions. How hard can it be? The simple answer is NOT HARD AT ALL. However humans have an inane need to complicate everything and it is destroying us. I am old enough now to remember simpler times. I do have to wear spec’s now for reading but they are not rose tinted. It’s a fact that in the past life was much simpler and folk were much happier as a result. If you weren’t there you won’t know. In spite of our ridiculous thrust toward ever more complicated and busy lives some things do not change. People remain the same bumbling, stumbling, farting and shitting silly meat sacks we always were. Sure we can make a few cool things but underneath we remain the same with all our basic needs, worries, cares and insecurities shared by our ancestors of a thousand years ago. That’s what so many people love about bonsai, it remains the same. Sure we refine a few techniques along the way but fundamentally we remain a little child who has performed the magic of shrinking a special old and magical tree into a little pot that we can carry around and care for.

The big issue today is simply too much unqualified information. As soon as a yellow leaf appear folk hit the web and start choking down great gobs of information. In my experience the ideas we pick up in the first few months of our bonsai journey take root like Japanese knotweed which is good if those ideas are sound but if they are erroneous or ill informed most everything that comes after will be on a shaky foundation. The internet is a great resource but unlike times past anyone and everyone can get their ideas published and out there for all to see. Previously you needed to use more expensive mediums to get your voice heard and because those channels were expensive folk putting up the money made sure, in general, those doing the speaking were at least qualified to do so. As an example…. Over the years I have been fanatical about growing mediums (soil) for bonsai. There is not any product or combination of ingredients I have not tried. One thing I know as a fact, using straight Moler without any other elements for growing bonsai in the British climate will not work well. There are a large number of factors why but I will not go into them here. Some time ago I saw on a forum a post extolling the magic of Moler as a growing medium and advocating it’s use straight from the bag. The writer sited improved growth and ease of watering as his primary reason for recommending the product. There was no information about the trees involved, their history or even species. There was no information about pots, growing conditions, fertilisers, water quality or any other very significant factors. An unqualified random experience of an unknown grower without any context, presented over just one season. I can be supremely confident, assuming the fellow continued in bonsai, that the soil mix he is now using has changed. However for anyone with very little experience, reading a post like that confirms the use of the product in that way and with little experience or a wider understanding of horticulture failure is imminent. I am sure the writer had the best of intentions but I am also sure he never picked up the thread again down the road and told everyone he got it a bit wrong.

If you are sick you go to a doctor. The doctor is qualified in general practice and is educated enough to know if you have a problem. If it’s simple he will give you a script’ for something to fix you up. However if he fears there may be something more complicated you will be off to see a specialist in fairly short order. That specialist will be extensively more skilled in his area than the GP. You would be crazy to go down to the local pub to get a diagnosis. In minutes there would be dozens of nosey beggars chipping in their two pennies worth and I can guarantee by the time you left you would be dazed and confused. Starting to sound familiar? One of my significant mentors in bonsai told me you “Have to judge people by the quality of their bonsai”. It’s not what you buy it’s what you grow. Many folk have the ability to go out and buy trees way beyond their experience and skill level. In the same way we now educate people way beyond their intellectual capacity and have a lot of PHDs that are in fact Post Hole Diggers. My mentor had a classic ‘put down’ “I can’t hear what you are saying because your trees are talking too loud”. Cruel but so often true. The only way we can determine the quality of a bonsai teacher is by the quality of the trees THEY have produced. Even that is not entirely straight forward because in the early days we are easily impressed.

The heart and soul of a teacher and their entire purpose is to pass on information and skills that open doors for their students. The greatest delight for a true teacher is to see their student go on to achieve greater success than they themselves could ever hope to achieve. In my life and my bonsai journey I have been privileged to meet a few of these inspiring folk. Sadly though most of the people I have met have lacked the true heart of a teacher and many are using “teaching” as a means to make themselves look good and feel better about their lives. It’s simple to be a big fish in a small pond, every bonsai club has one. Speaking personally I never quite understood the need to have ‘students’ (the term is often used as a euphemism for allegiance) I know the human race is extremely tribal in nature and I know it feels good to ‘belong’ but, in my experience and observations of the last twenty five years in our hobby the best way to progress is to take as much information as you can from every source available. Learning is an ongoing process and like an alchemist we should take as many elements as we can and then by combining them together with skill and in the light of our own experience we can develop something that is more than the sum of it’s parts. Allying ourselves to a particular person, becoming a ‘student’, means we are destined to go only as far as our teacher but, if our chosen mentor does not have a desire to see us succeed we are more likely to always end up as much less than the sum of our parts. I highly recommend working with as many learned folk as you can, take as much as you can from everyone and then combine what you have learned with your own experience and develop your own blend of bonsai. However do be wary of nailing your colours to any particular mast to the exclusion of all others. Swearing allegiance to a flag is a very patriotic thing to do but in bonsai it’s not necessary.

I say all that to say this. Most bonsai folk fail because of a few mis-truths they got lodged in their heads long before they knew any better. When we are new to anything we soak up information like a sponge, the trouble is later on we have difficulty shedding poor quality information. Be very careful what you pick up in the early days and always try to qualify the source before you add credence to any pearls of wisdom you tuck away. Finally NEVER be reluctant to try new things, maintain an open mind. Always be prepared to jettison old ideas and never stop questioning what you know and what you do. Keep your eyes fixed on the future, accept failure as the price of an education and never stop moving forward. There will be some scary moments (like the time I spent 6 months salary on a single tree) and some sad times but just keep going. There is so much exciting and rewarding stuff to discover it won’t stop until you are dead. If you have become bored with bonsai, frustrated or disillusioned it’s because you have stopped learning. As another old fellow once said “If you try you might fail but, if you don’t try you are guaranteed to fail”.


11 thoughts on “Be Careful What You Pick Up

  1. Very briefly using Moler alone is too wet, too acidic and does not support flora and fauna vital to creating a healthy rhizosphere. There are a lot of other issues too but I have dealt with those elsewhere already.

  2. Hi Graham,

    First of all, many thanks for all the information you put up here, on youtube and so on – it’s an exceptional resource. You should write a book 🙂

    One question – sorry to pick up on a side issue from this post – what would the downsides of using straight Moler be?

    Of course tree requirements, watering habits, climate and so on affect its suitability in a given situation – but assuming all those are taken into account, does Moler have some property that makes it unsuitable for use on its own?

    Thanks in advance for any tips.

  3. Mahalo Graham for the information and inspiration you have given me through your YOUTUBE vids an blog. I have received a kit I ordered from you and have begun shaping trees I first dug up 15 yrs. ago. They are of course not anything like you creations, but I think they have a graceful beauty all their own.
    I am originally from Hawai’i where bonsai was brought by the Japanese plantation workers and is now a part of the general culture. At the time the skills were steeped in mystery. Thanks to you the fog has cleared.
    I now am in the Upper Peninsula of the state of Michigan in the US. The Great Lakes region has lots of potential tree species for bonsai material, several spruce species, firs, and pines as well as maples, birches and oaks.
    I find my favorite the be the Eastern White Pine. They tend to come out looking very graceful.
    Thanks again. I will be following your vids and blogs.
    Aloha, Kahoa

  4. It sucks that so many trees go down hill. I bust my hump to stop it happening and we also refuse to sell good trees to inexperienced folk. However bonsai is a long term commitment and a lot of people lack the strength of character to stay with it. DON”T deal in live stock!

  5. Hi graham , i was curious does it bother you that people buy a quality bonsai only to let it die through lack of knowlege/experiance? I also would love to see more yt vids , very inspiring. I guess your really busy but it would be great.
    I am hoping to be out in the mountains this weekend digging wild larch trees as its almost springtime here in nz.
    Ian , south island new zealand

  6. hey graham!

    when will the next videi be uploaded on youtube? it´s been qiete a while since the last one… Really looking forward and wood love to see what happened wit the trees you have shown in the previous videos.

    cheers marco

  7. A beautiful and insightfully written piece.

    I agree it it so sad when we lose those that teach and inspire us, I read the same sad news today.

    I agree that Bonsai has accelerated so fast in the UK and many have embraced and kept up with the immense knowledge and techniques that people share, and many stick with what they learned 20 years ago. I am sure there is a place for both.

    All we can do as individuals is distill the knowledge available and pick the bits that seem to work for us and those around us.

    The important bit for me is making sure that we remember those who have openly shared their knowledge with us and continue to share what we know in a selfless way.

    Kaizen has specifically embraced the digital medium with videos helping anyone around the globe who wants to learn. I am sure the ‘old fellow’ will be smiling on you Graham and he would be immensely proud to have inspired somebody who selflessly continues to give so much to Bonsai.

    It’s a timely reminder to cherish the moment and those we get to spend time with on this ever absorbing thing we call Bonsai.


  8. Totally agree Graham, I’ve been growing/looking after bonsai for 25 years and over that time have learnt a lot, mostly the hard way. Killed several trees some really good ones but I learnt a lot in the process. Watching your online videos expanded my knowledge massively as I could see certain techniques and skills that aren’t easily picked up in books. 5 years ago I read an article on a different bonsai website about super feeding and substrate soil and how it’s impossible to over feed and how the trees are stronger etc etc, so I had a go and guess what happened… I killed the tree. Reason was it might work for some doing things in completely different climates and if you water 3 times a day but our climate is different, completely different. I stopped and now only use organic fertiliser and only water when the soil is virtually dry which was another failing as I used to water all the time. I would say it’s taken me 20 years to truly understand what’s required to properly look after my trees. 20 minutes every day on the trees has made the biggest difference and to not over react when something goes wrong. As you say, always learning it never stops.

  9. This is wery enlightning post. I am following your work as much as it is possible to follow from here. Missing your videos on YT.


Comments are closed.