How Many Trees?

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The longer we practise bonsai, the more trees we seem to have hanging around our gardens. There are our bonsai, our trees in training (potentsai), trees for growing on in large pots or the ground, trees recovering from styling or collection, airlayers, cuttings and seedlings.
Our bonsai journey always reaches a point where we realise we have too many trees! At this time the questions arise; how many trees can I look after on a day-to-day basis? How many trees do I need to make a good bonsai collection in 5, 10, 20 years? How many of these trees will actually make good bonsai…..ever?
The answers can ultimately depend on the individual enthusiast and their own time limitations, space restrictions, patience and motivation.
This article is based on the thoughts of Brent Walston, renowned bonsai nurseryman and owner of EvergreenGardenworks.

Brent W: I have somewhere in excess of five thousand plants in various stages (not counting liners and cuttings), so my perspective my be a bit different to many bonsai enthusiasts. But then, I am blessed and cursed with having nothing else to do. You should have as many plants as you can care for, with some provisos, of course.

Know what you are buying. If you are just buying plants hoping they will become bonsai, stop, think, and learn some more first. Buy (or obtain) only species that have potential, and within those few species, buy only those that have at least some potential. If you can't recognize potential yet, stop, think, read, and learn what it is.

The flip side of acquiring plants is discarding those that prove not to have potential. You must be willing to do this, and it is hard to give your children a boot out the door. Clubs are great for this, you can donate them to the club sales. I have known many people who could just not give up their plants and simply could not pass up orphan plants. It is a disease, and it will wreck your ability to create good believable bonsai.

The percentage of all attempts that will become believable bonsai is exceedingly small. Less than one percent. So, if you have fewer than 100 plants, the odds are that you will never have one, unless you are adept enough to recognize good potential, and smart enough and wealthy enough to buy it.

It may sound cruel, but these numbers are not pulled out of thin air. This what I see from my collection and the collections of others based on twenty years of experience. At the end of this twenty years, I am just now starting to have some decent plants worthy of showing. If I had concentrated on shohin, I probably could have cut this in half, but I am just a sucker for the big stuff, even though I appreciate and admire the smaller.

Keeping plants alive is good, and is probably the best place to start. If you can't keep them alive, then you already have enough plants. Don't buy more until you are confident you can keep them alive AND trained. Next, is to learn what species will really make good bonsai, and shy away from the others, except for purely experimental purposes. After you know what species to look for, you have to learn how long it will take to do what you want to do in terms of style and size. Once you have learned that lesson, you will probably have a beginning feel for potential and some ability to see it in untrained stock. After these lessons, which may take a few years, it will be time to collect with abandon, to satisfy your thirst for material, but always remembering that you have to let go of the dogs and dregs if you are ever to truly develop that material.

Harry H: Though I agree with your thoughts, how beneficial is our attitude to a beginner?

Brent W: I think it's never too early to give beginner's a sense of what bonsai is about, even if they can't really make use of the information immediately. I know that I have been influenced in many ways by simple off hand comments (sometimes years before) when the time was right for the lesson to sink in.

Harry H: While it is undeniably important to be able to discard trees, IMO it should be those trees that have little or no potential in comparison to the rest of an enthusiasts stock so one is not bogged down with comparatively poor trees at the expense of those that will make better bonsai. Otherwise we swing to the opposite direction and have a scene that discards all trees that are not high quality (for instance in your 1%).

Brent W:I agree, and I try to avoid absolutes. I take everything with a grain a salt, including my own beliefs. I have often said that the difference between good potential (bonsai) and bad potential is simply time. You can convert ANY material suitable species into good potential material if you are willing to start completely over. But at some point you have to ask yourself if you are willing to invest that kind of time and effort, and what your time and effort are really worth. This is of course relative as well, the older we get, we more aware we are that there isn't an open ended period to develop stock. I am becoming painfully aware of that these days.

Harry H: Surely the ability to make something out of poor quality material hones bonsai technique and artistry?

Brent W: I used to think that, and it isn't completely untrue. But again, will you learn MORE by making really horrendously bad material into mediocre bonsai, or by turning good potential material into quality (believable) bonsai? The ability to turn bad material into decent material isn't so much a LEARNING experience as it is a demonstration of skills already acquired.

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