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.