Back in the day, when I had more hair on my head and less on my chin I thought life would work out a certain way, probably not unlike my father perhaps. Then I stumbled ass first into bonsai and, given a few years it ran away with me and became a business. I had hoped that by now I might be taking life a little easier, trouble is the bonsai business doesn’t make shit and so here I am working harder than when I was a spotty teenager with no prospects other than a life of drudgery and grunt work, got that right then. Because of bonsai Catherine and I have never had a holiday in any way despite being together for well over twenty years now. Both of us are working like slaves every single day 24/7/365 as modern parlance goes. I don’t mind, men were made to work, not retire to an easy chair and die of boredom and the doctor said, just last week, I am in very good shape. Don’t laugh, round is a shape! So the hard graft must be paying dividends in some respect.
Bonsai is a hard task master and making a business of it puts one under the iron fist of a slave driver. What saddens me a lot is that I don’t get the time to spend on what I love the most, doing bonsai my way. I rather wish I had kept bonsai as a hobby which I have now lost. Just yesterday I spent fourteen hours straight working on bonsai trees but that was all commercial stock (some of it very good). In the last four days I have spent forty four hours working on trees, good for honing one’s skills (and aggravating my tendinitis) but not exactly rewarding to my artistic sensibilities (don’t laugh). However I guess most of us spend the bulk of our waking hours at work, it just happens my work is everyone else’s hobby. There are worse ways to make a living!
Recently we had a rather large delivery of new bonsai and material turn up at the house. At a guess I would think this lot is over two hundred pieces. It’s certainly the most money I have ever spent on something not made of bricks. This year we have a lot more small and mid sized bonsai, ideal for all the old blokes who keep telling me they can’t lift much these days 😉 Quality is good this year but increasingly we are seeing top quality costing a lot more. Simply put, the demand for quality bonsai is outstripping supply and as always in that case prices are rising. Even the cost of legitimately collected yamadori is going through the roof. Collectors costs for things like permits are rocketing and since demand is high stock is going to the highest bidder. Like for like I would estimate prices have risen this year by a high single figure which considering exchange rate movement is pretty impressive. That’s great news for anyone who owns good bonsai trees and bad news if you are in the throes of building a collection. But, in comparison with a lot of the mass produced, ultimately worthless shit we fill our lives with bonsai trees still represent astonishing value for money considering the time invested and skill expended in their production. Buy a new car for a good five figure sum and watch that money dwindle to nothing in ten to fifteen years. Spend that same amount on a good bonsai tree, take care of it properly, allow it to enrich your life and in fifteen years sell it for a bonafide index linked real world profit.
Here I have taken a few snap shots of what arrived. There really are all sorts here, good, very good, average and even some ugly trees too. Within the next two weeks we are expecting a (literally) lorry load of yamadori. This lot is, by and large Japanese bonsai, Chinese bonsai and other nursery produced stock with a smattering of yamadori and even a few pieces from a private collection and some PX stock too. This year I have also lifted a hundred little trees I was growing in the ground. There genuinely is a lot more but so far I have not had a chance to drag it in from the drive way. By the time spring actually arrives I would estimate there will be close to three and a half thousand plants in the yard. This will all be for sale sooner or later. Perhaps if I sold it all and didn’t replace it I could retire like my old man did at 52 but that ship sailed already. There might be the kernel of an idea there though, where’s that calculator?
P.S. If you need to know the prices of anything shown below and are too impatient to wait until I list it on our web site send an email to – email@example.com – include the image you are interested in, no image no reply. Then be patient and respectful it may take me up to a couple of weeks to reply. Ranting, raving, being arsey and wasting our time on the phone will ensure you do NOT get what you hoped for. We get sick of being treated badly and abused, politeness and respect go a long way around here!
It’s been more than thirty years since I bought my first indoor bonsai tree and began my journey into this amazing hobby. One of the things that has helped me enormously is a funny quirk in my head that allows me to remember all the little details. Even now I remember everything about my special trees. Where they came from, every little thing I did along the way and how they responded to my actions. This also includes the effect of weather which, especially in the UK is an ever present phenomenon that has an impact upon our activities. Don’t assume that good weather is good for trees and bad weather is bad. Most hardy trees need the winter as much as they need the summer. What I have learned is that the weather is not to be trusted but trees are and will thrive regardless of what the sky throws at them.
Where that goes wrong, on occasions catastrophically so, is when we start messing with things we don’t really understand. Putting our impatience upon a tree and expecting a certain level of ‘performance’ allied with an ill founded and inexperienced understanding will cause problems. I despair at the amount of desperately sad plants I see being slowly tortured to death by fumbling hands, it genuinely breaks my heart, right at the outset I got into bonsai because I have a powerful love of trees and their place in the world and because I believe they can teach us how to be better people. Every day it saddens me to see suffering trees in our hobby wether that be through ignorance or the strutting pride of their owners. Since the advent of the internet things have become much worse as ignorance has spread faster than time honoured and long understood wisdom. Bonsai really is an anachronism in this fast moving modern age, though i would argue, so are we.
In my experience the single most destructive activity in bonsai cultivation is the unhealthy obsession folk seem to have with re-potting. I have written at GREAT length on the subject of Repotting Bonsai and the requirements of the growing media we choose to use in Choosing Soil For Bonsai Trees. I have also covered correct timing in When to Re-pot Bonsai. What I didn’t really cover was the effects of weather on the process and that’s where a good memory comes in handy.
Just a few days ago I was advising folk hang fire on re-potting. In the UK SPRING IS NOT February despite what the weather looked like and in spite of climate change pundits telling us that’s now normal. It’s certainly not unusual to have something of a false spring here. I have seen it in five of the last six years here on the east coast. As we all know it’s more likely to snow at easter that at Christmas. Creating beautiful bonsai trees is all about doing the absolute best we can for our trees and that means every choice has to be our best. Re-potting bonsai early will NOT make spring happen any sooner no matter how much we wish it would. When I started bonsai we would re-pot around end of March going into April and May. Today folk start right after Christmas and by end of March (still the optimum time for most deciduous species) it’s all over.
Most re-potting work is entirely unnecessary, especially for older trees, many of which will give their best after five or even ten years in the same pot undisturbed assuming we have the appropriate skill required to cultivate bonsai at that level which is rare. The obsession with ‘free drainage’ is entirely unhealthy and largely only appropriate to accelerated growth regimens used with raw material. Any recently re-potted bonsai has, by default, a well draining soil. For mature bonsai this phase has to be managed so as not to encourage too much coarse fast growth which can ruin a trees maturity and fine ramification. In time drainage will reduce as pore space within the soil is filled with root and normal care can resume. For mature bonsai, re-potting once drainage reduces looks like the work of a mad man to me and guarantees ultimate failure in the quest for old mature and magical bonsai.
Before I run myself down a rabbit hole with all that let me get back on subject. The weather was unseasonably warm here a couple of weeks ago but now we are back to normal. Gales, freezing rain, heavy daytime rain followed by hard overnight frosts and constant temperatures in single figures. Normal fare for an early British spring time. So if you were seduced into re-potting bonsai too early because of the nice weather some consideration needs to be given to those trees now. What might that be?
In the case of most, simply moving into a greenhouse seems ideal. If you have the facility it’s a good course of action. However be aware that warm temperatures may bring on fast growing varieties too soon and then moving them outside later in the year can cause problems, certainly not ideal. A closed greenhouse with little air circulation is also bad and will encourage fungal problems, particularly with overly wet soil and freshly cut roots. Putting trees in the shade is a seriously bad idea in the UK, they need sun to recover. The ideal situation for most species is under a light open cover with direct natural sunlight protected from the wind and rain. Soil should be kept just a little more dry than normal. In this situation the cold (for hardy plants) is immaterial. The primary concerns should be the wind and the wet. Control these aspects correctly and all will be well. As foliage develops a preventative fungal and pest control spray is a very good insurance.
Think carefully about re-potting, it’s important but largely misunderstood, mis-used and unnecessary and can prevent bonsai trees reaching their full potential. Learn your horticulture, time your actions correctly and consider after care, it’s just as important as the task itself.
Insanely busy we are completely swamped with orders every day. It’s a living nightmare just now. Please bare with us, we’re doing our best but we don’t have any more hands to call upon.
Thanks but that really is enough now 😉
I have been threatening to do some workshops for a while now. Problem is actually twofold. First I am old, really busy and mostly worn smooth out. Secondly the workshop is actually full of old motorcycles and I don’t have a place to put them. However, my sense of duty has got the better of me and so here are some dates for 2019. Only available first come first served, paid in advance. I have been taken for a fool too many times and so payment is strictly up front and non refundable in the case of a no show. My weekends mean a lot to me and I don’t give them up easily. Thanks for understanding.
Recent before & afters…
Folk in Britain are morbidly obsessed with the weather. Turn on the news today and all you will hear are stories about the cataclysmic conditions. The BBC found a spot of snow up on the moors where some folk who can’t drive abandoned their cars and ended up billeted in a school hall. It’s a good job we don’t get weather like that being suffered in parts of the U.S just now, there would be mass suicides if we did.
Here in Norfolk the weather is beautiful, the sun is shining and today I have spotted the first signs of spring. Aconites, snowdrops, daffodils and bluebells. Today I have seen little faces poking out of our nest boxes and the greenhouse is filled with the beautiful scent of Prunus blossom. It may well be a long time until spring gets fully under way but I for one am always happy to see these early harbingers of better things to come.
P.S. I remain somewhat surprised, given all the political insanity going on here that either the government, Brexit or the oppressive masters of the EU have not cancelled spring but I guess it shows just how important the machinations of men really are. This will all be going on long after we gone 🙂
I have to sell bonsai stuff in order to survive and sometimes I buy things that just don’t move. I can’t afford to just dump stuff and move on and besides I was raised by parents and grandparents that experienced war austerity, waste is just not in my vocabulary. To that end I have spent a couple of evenings beavering away on some rather tatty scots pine that have been taking up space for a while now. I hate this kind of first work, it’s so coarse and results in a scruffy image but then we have to start somewhere right?
I have now spent 14 days solid sorting out new stock and it’s not even re-potting season yet. Buying yamadori and raw material may well give good value for money but when you have as many pots as we do it makes a cruel task-master. Raw material rarely has mojo, certainly not when the price is low. However with the application of time, dedication, imagination plus a little sprinkling of fairy dust a bonsai tree can slowly be created. Often it takes an experienced eye to see the possibilities and skilled hands to lay the path ahead. No two folk will see the same thing when looking at trees and one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. That’s good because so far I have not seen two trees the same. Beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder. Having the courage to do our own thing irrespective of the influence of populist opinion, now that’s a whole other ball game.
Not all of these will are available in the short term, I need to keep something to work on, but offers are always welcome. Please excuse the pictures, a British winter is the worst time to be photographing trees!
If I had any choice in the matter I would just surround myself with beautiful bonsai masterpieces steeped in history and nothing else. I guess we all would right? Foolishly, I allowed my hobby to become a full time business and that changes the rules of the game entirely. I now have to meet the needs of customers and supply a fickle market at keen prices whilst being ‘competitive’. On top of that I have the government’s cold bony hand in my pocket and bleeding my ingenuity and entrepreneurial endeavours by adding a fifth to the cost of everything I do. Having turned over something like seven and a half million to date it’s become very obvious to me how you make a million quid in bonsai, you start with three million.
In order to keep ourselves afloat we have to work seven days a week and meet the needs of EVERY customer as best we can. That necessitates holding an impossibly wide range of goods including a lot of plants that are not yet the revered specimens I would own from preference. I do still love the creation process in bonsai but considering we have a large six figure sum invested in bonsai tree stock it really would be nice to have a few little treats of my own on the benches but the numbers really don’t work for the business. Therefore I buy material we can add value to and that our talented customers buy to work and develop into something special (often before selling them back to us for double the price). Not that I am complaining but I have now realised my expectations were a little rose tinted at the outset. However there are worse ways to make a living though they may be a lot less stressful.
Having got that lot of my mind it’s time to introduce our first delivery of 2019. There are two more deliveries due this week. This is a lot of (currently) scabby raw material I have bought in for working next winter along with a few better bits I hope to sort out over the next few months. Obviously everything is for sale but it may take a bit of enhanced imagination to really see the bonsai within.
More soon 😉
Following all the changes around here it’s becoming evident that everything has worked out well. Our output is up by more than 20% with no more mouths to feed than before and I have, for the first time in years, time on my hands. Not that I am looking for something to do. If I had a staff of six JUST working on trees eight hours a day we would NEVER get finished, we just have TOO many plants to deal with. I am the only one that actually does any bonsai work around here and so I have to content myself with knowing I can hardly scratch the surface.
Last week I spent my early mornings and evenings sorting out some of the less desirable trees I have laying around. Even after all these years it still amazes me what a couple of carving tools and a bit of wire can do. There’s nothing here worth a dam other than my paltry wages…
Creating bonsai trees from collected material is a skilled process of knowing when to get involved and when to leave alone. Failure to carefully observe your material and act appropriately generally results in a poor outcome. Too much work is every bit as bad as too little. We don’t create bonsai, we can only point our material in the right direction, it’s the tree that creates the real magic when we are indoor eating corn chips and drinking beer. Getting a good start is important and every good start begins in the engine room, under the soil. Once that’s kicking out enough power we can make small inroads with a rudimentary shaping after which we need to step back and let the tree get on with its job. Most of these are rough as guts but there is always a time in bonsai when things APPEAR to go backwards and this is that time. Next work will be much more refined and fulfilling. Sadly many folk have a problem knowing or understanding this first work business so here are a few images to illustrate Day 1 bonsai training.
2019 has started with a bang around here. The bang was the sound of a backlog of Christmas orders hitting my desk. Because we work every day throughout the year orders normally flow through the system largely unnoticed. At Christmas we go into hibernation for a week and it’s always shocking just how many orders get backed up. Whilst this week has only consisted of three working days we have managed to get out something like two hundred parcels including some beautiful bonsai trees and over a quarter ton of various bonsai soils. Next week looks like being even bigger than that so if you have an outstanding order with us please be patient, we’ll be with you soon.
Despite the above the business of running a business still goes on and this week we have seen the return of a few favourite bonsai carving tools that have been absent for a while. Sadly prices are increasing and you can blame your government for that, we have reduced our profit margins to ease the rise somewhat but there is only so much we can do. I have also been busy on new bonsai tree stock and have managed to secure about a hundred and fifty plants so far this week, some nice yamadori, some part trained bonsai and some exciting field grown stock too.
Finally, as ever, the bonsai tree work must go on and I am rushing around getting a lot of trees whipped into shape before spring. There is a massive workload to be completed before re-potting begins in a few weeks time. Monday and Tuesday before we got back to work I had to prune up close to two hundred little trees I have in the ground in preparation for lifting in spring (no wonder I have tendinitis in my right elbow).
Once we got back to work I spent my early mornings and evenings knocking up this sabina juniper. We sold this a few years back but it returned in PX unworked but potted. I simply couldn’t resist giving it a clean up and then one thing led to another…. as it does.