Learning to walk in Bonsai

by R. Moquin


This article originally appeared on the Bonsaisite forums and I would like to thank R. Moquin for granting permission for its reproduction at Bonsai4me. Though intended for bonsai beginners, this article offers many useful article links and much information that would be beneficial to more experienced enthusiasts.

This article is not intended to regurgitate information readily available on the Internet, but rather serve as a compendium of extremely well written and informative articles floating around cyberspace. It seems that “Bonsai” is shrouded in a mystical “aura”, a lot of myths have surfaced over the years, and the Internet further exacerbates them. It is no wonder folks who take up “Bonsai” are often confused. It is extremely difficult to decipher between facts and myths when, even reference books written on the subject seem to contradict each other.

Up until the 90s when the Internet was born, bonsai enthusiasts were few and far between. Information was very scarce and often only available in books. There was a lot of trial and error on the part of enthusiasts and even “Western Masters.” This trial and error period didn’t necessarily lead to best practices. Individuals lacking in practical knowledge and experience (relative to today’s standards) wrote books and thus the misinformation contained was passed around as gospel.

Now with the availability of the Internet, enthusiasts are able to link up across the world and compare experiences, improving their overall knowledge and good practices in real time. This is why, to anyone familiar with modern bonsai on the Internet, many pre-90 bonsai books are inaccurate and in some cases downright wrong! While some are great references, there is also a number of shocking ones. Though these were considered to be reliable sources at the time, the authors themselves would probably disagree with what they wrote 10, 20, or even 30 years ago.

The information contained hereinafter is the culmination of Harry Harrington and Brent Walston’s work. Harry is an avid and knowledgeable enthusiast while Brent owns Evergreen Gardenworks, a renowned and specialized nursery that grows “bonsai stock”. This article is not meant as a duplication of what has already been written. One may find copied sections from the original text with hyperlinks to the original articles. The intent is to paint a broad stroke approach to “Bonsai” from beginning to end. Without further ado, let’s begin our journey.

Learning to walk
Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor can “Bonsai” be created in weeks, or even months. It takes years to produce “Bonsai”. Producing “Bonsai” takes time and patience. If you have neither of those, you need not read any further.

Even amongst the more knowledgeable and reputable enthusiasts, opinions and approaches will vary. Brent wrote, “Don't buy a “bonsai”! That is a poor way to begin this fascinating hobby and usually doomed to failure. “Bonsai” is not about “owning” bonsai trees, but rather the enjoyment of caring for them and especially creating them.”

Harry’s take on the subject is diametrically opposed. “Why is it necessary for everyone to feel the need to create “Bonsai”, particularly when many will fail to achieve anything worthy of being called Bonsai? Creating a good bonsai is considerably more difficult than simply caring for one. People should be encouraged to buy healthy bonsai from a reputable source to at least sate their initial enthusiasm.

The commonly held idea that the average purchased bonsai is by any means finished and would not benefit from 5-10 years work on the branch structure, (improving it’s scale and ramification) or work on its trunk and nebari (improving the lateral roots, their scale and ramification), is very naive. Until an enthusiast truly understands what separates a “good” bonsai design from a “bad” bonsai design, how can they hope to guide a seedling there?

When a beginner has gained the knowledge required to look after a bonsai successfully (both in horticultural and aesthetics terms), then they can go on to the next step, which is to create them. If bonsai is truly an art form as well as a craft, we need to move away from the DIY mentality that states that a bonsai not developed from seedling or raw material by its owner is somehow inferior.”

Harry states that this is not a common opinion in the “Bonsai Community” and I have to agree. Both of these observations have merit and are supported by this author. Having said that, it is my opinion even as a neophyte, that most will not begin their journey with either.
“Many nurseries and vendors sell inexpensive plants in pots and call them bonsai. With care they could become bonsai, but they are not bonsai. On the Internet we have adopted the term “Mall Bonsai” or “mallsai” for these plants. One learns the basics of “Bonsai” best by creating them, even your first one. Without these basic principles, it is unreasonable to expect that someone could keep one alive, let alone maintain it as art. There is also the cost factor. Any “real” bonsai will take at least five years of development to be convincing. To buy such a bonsai would cost several hundred dollars. Of course you can find “mallsai” everywhere, even in grocery stores. These are junk and are not “Bonsai”. A two-year-old juniper cutting plunked unceremoniously into a bonsai pot is not “Bonsai”. It is the care and training that makes “Bonsai”; these plants have none”.
However, in the care of an inspired and talented artist, even “mallsai” can be made beautiful. Here’s a classic example. If this seems daunting, well, it is. It takes years to learn most bonsai skills, well, approximately two years to learn the basics anyway. Styling skills are learnt over a lifetime. Well then, how do you start? First and foremost read as much as you can find about bonsai.

Acquiring suitable material
Regardless of what has been said about “mallsai”, most beginners will receive their introduction to “Bonsai” by the purchasing or receiving a “mallsai” as a gift, cute little trees in bonsai pots that flood the market during the festive season. The reason these trees are called “junk” is because they are mass-produced in growing fields, for a quick turn around. The best-grown stock finds its way onto the Asian market, the remainder sold as “mallsai”.
It takes time to properly grow “bonsai stock”, anywhere from 15-25 years and more. During this time, the nursery cares for, and shapes the trees that in turn become “potensai”. The latter is used to depict trained or untrained nursery stock, which may eventually become “Bonsai”. During this lengthy period, nurseries see no return on their investment, all they are doing is pouring time and money into developing potential stock, that is why “bonsai stock” is so expensive, more often than not reaching in the high hundreds and even thousands of dollars. It is quite an investment for anyone recently introduced to the art.
“Mallsai” on the other hand are relatively inexpensive, and some do indeed make good starter material at a reasonable price. The problem often encountered with “mallsai” is that the majority have serious flaws. These trees are the “bottom of the barrel”; the nursery sells these cheap in order to recover their investment. The following article will educate you with the necessary steps for acquiring nursery stock. In this article, you will find important information on what to look for when selecting nursery stock, which, can be applied when purchasing a “mallsai”. Should you choose the latter, refrain from all temptations to purchase from any vendor any tree that he cannot: A. identify for you and, B. provide you with necessary care instructions. Another important factor often overlooked is the acquisition of material not suited for your geographical location. Most nurseries found in one’s neighborhood will only carry material, suitable for your geographical location. You will often find tags attached to the tree on proper care and which zone(s) are suitable for the tree. All bets are off when ordering across geographical regions from the Internet.
Learn to look after your first tree successfully and your confidence will grow enough to widen your horizons and successfully learn more advanced techniques. But don't run before you walk. The first fundamental rule to learn when embarking on this journey is that you are dealing with something living and ever changing; the basic rules of horticulture need be learnt before you can successfully maintain your tree.

Forget about taking your cute little tree and make it into a bonsai overnight, it is not going to happen. Your focus right now is, keeping the tree alive! When you have accomplished that over the course of a year, then you can go on to other things. So what about pruning and wiring etc… forget about that for the time being, your focus should still be on maintaining your tree healthy. How do we accomplish that? Let’s read on!

Plant Selection
Trees can be broken down into two main categories: indoor and outdoor species. Indoor species are often referred to as “tropical” whilst outdoor species are broken down into conifers, evergreens and deciduous trees. Anyone interested in growing bonsai indoors are highly recommended to acquire the following references on the subject: “Bonsai in your Home” and “Ficus the Exotic Bonsai”. The former depicts all species suitable for use as indoor “bonsai”, along with information on the growing conditions required for each species. The latter is a compendium on the care and development of “Ficus” as “Bonsai”. It is my learnt opinion that any serious enthusiasts growing “indoor bonsai”, not armed with these two references are merely marking time. These books along with several other written articles are an absolute necessity for indoor trees to thrive. Without this knowledge, your trees are basically just plants in a fancy bonsai pot. It is impossible to mimic tropical conditions in one’s home, however one can create a suitable eco-system within their means and budget. When it comes to reference material this site has an extensive “book review” sub-forum.

Basic Care
All your tree needs is tender loving care, that’s it! How does one apply TLC? Your tree to survive and flourish needs: good soil, to be properly watered, fed and provided with sufficient sunlight to remain healthy. That’s it! Quite simple isn’t it? Well not really, it is a little more complicated than that.

Growing medium (soil)
Let’s begin with the medium your tree is growing in, bonsai culture differs tremendously compared to growing trees in the ground. Everyone is looking for the magic “soil recipe” stop; there is no such thing. What you do need is: a soil that is free draining, oxygenated and retains moisture; the latter is not “potting soil” . So what makes up a good soil? Combining the right amount of organic matter (nutrients and moisture retention) and inorganic components (which provide for good drainage and root development).
Whilst the organic component is normally sifted composted pine or fir bark, the inorganic component is any form of grit; sometimes this is crushed granite, coarse sand etc… small sharp pebbles, about 1/8 – 3/16 of an inch in diameter. This provides valuable air space for oxygenation of the roots, whilst providing good drainage and assisting in evaporation. The other extremely important inorganic component is some type of porous material in the size specified above, which, has the ability to retain moisture (read moisture) not water. This enables the tree to “drink” as required to survive between being watered, this component is crucial to the health of your trees during the hot summer months. This is a necessary component because of our free flowing medium water is dispensed readily. Contrary to what folks might think, trees are not on “IV”, in other words the tree does not take up water on a continual basis. Trees that require water will take it up via the roots when watered, and will only replace the moisture loss trough transpiration, just like you drink when you’re thirsty. In “Bonsai”, you must provide a way for the excess water to be eliminated, as improper drainage will result in root rot, and eventually a dead tree. A free draining soil and a container of the proper size provides the latter.

The organic and porous components in your soil recipe provide a sort of reservoir to replenish moisture loss due to transpiration during the day, until the next watering session. You should be watering your tree daily, sometimes twice a day during the summer months; this is not a golden rule, but a guideline. A good draining soil is one that water starts coming out of the pot as soon as you start watering the soil from the top. Providing your trees are healthy and depending on individual climates, your soil mixture will vary with every individual and region where these trees are grown. That is why there is no “magic” recipe.

When the Japanese refer to sand, they are not talking beach sand, they are talking extremely coarse sand, similar in size as previously mentioned. Soil by their definition does not even come close to what we think soil is or should be. Regular garden soil will not work as it retains too much water. Brent has written an extremely informative article “Why the earth is not like a pot”. He goes on to describe why “overpotting” (a common mistake made by neophytes and often, learned artists alike) our trees should be avoided. To grow trees in a pot we modify our soil to suit our geographical area. Listed below is a basic formulae that will get you there, these figures are all by volume not weight:

- for conifers: 30% sifted pine bark, 35% porous material, 35% grit
- for deciduous: 50% sifted pine bark, 25% porous material, 25% grit
- for tropicals: 60% sifted pine bark, 20% porous material, 20% grit

The first one is for trees that like to remain on the dry side; the second for trees that like to be kept moist and lastly for trees who like to remain damp (not sodden) at all times. Depending on your growing conditions, you may need to adjust the components. As trees do not need organic matter to live, I would recommend adding less organic matter if your soil retains too much moisture and adding more “porous material” if it doesn’t retain enough, modify your mix to suit your needs. Harry has recently revised his soil article, the reason I mention it, is because as recent as 3 years ago, soils were different than what they are today and, the present shift in the community is the use of totally inorganic growing medium for bonsais and some are even considering growing them hydroponically, the latter was discussed with “Ficus Jerry”. The medium in which we grow our trees is forever changing but potting soil is only for house plants not for bonsai.

Watering our trees
We covered soil and touched on watering in providing our trees with TLC. One would think watering is a simple task, but in “bonsai culture” nothing can be further from the truth. Harry describes basic watering, the effects of watering and rain and, what to do on holidays. To dispel a rooted bonsai myth you should take the time to read about misting your trees.

Feeding (fertilizing)
I’ve provided you with two of the four components of “TLC”, the third is feeding your trees or providing them with the appropriate nourishment for them to be healthy and thrive. This is probably the most complex component of nurturing our trees. Too little and our trees are under nourished and will put on a sickly appearance, whist too much results in all kinds of problems, including death. Fertilizing your bonsai is critical, the application and what to apply will vary with the seasons and whether the tree is under development or a mature tree. The latter will require what is called a “maintenance program”. It will not be discussed here, suffice to say that, by the time you have reached that stage, you will have acquired the necessary knowledge to apply it’s principals.

Sufficient light
Last but not least, the final component is sufficient light, more importantly, the proper amount of light. If you cannot provide your tree with the necessary amount of shade or sunlight, the purchase of said tree becomes a moot point. If your growing or display area is in the shade, is it not pointless to purchase trees that require full sun and vice versa? Not only will the tree fail to thrive under these conditions, but may eventually die.

Anyone wanting to develop “tropicals” indoors without providing them with 12-16 hrs of supplemental lighting a day is wasting their time. The best darn article on the subject may be found on Jerry Meislik’s site, also known as “Ficus Jerry” and the author of “Ficus the Exotic Bonsai”. When dealing with tropicals, Jerry is quite renown for his in depth knowledge on the subject. I found an article on the American Bonsai Society Site, written by Pauline F Muth discussing keeping tropicals in Northern Zones.

Winter Care
Once you have learnt how to keep your tree alive and healthy by meeting its needs you must prepare ahead of time, depending on your geographical location how to care for your trees during winter. For folks that reside in temperate regions this is not a problem, for the remainder of us, our first winter is something that is feared. Armed with the appropriate knowledge, the latter becomes a moot point.

Basic Skills
Everyone in the beginning wants to have a finished bonsai. As discussed a “Bonsai” is never really finished and takes years to create. I believe a person needs to understand the basics of pruning and pinching not to mention the appropriate timing when these techniques are applied prior to styling their tree. Learning the basic skills required to do “Bonsai” as previously discussed takes about two years. Although, this might seem a daunting task, not taking the time to learn and do it right from the onset will not only delay the development of your tree but your experience as well. Mistakes made in the beginning take years to correct, often-improper pruning results in “spoiled potensai”. The early mistakes cannot be undone; the end result is a mediocre “Bonsai” at best.

Let’s face it; trees look good in bonsai pots. The truth of the matter is, only a finished or near finished trees should be in a bonsai pot, unless you are completely satisfied with the tree in its present state. One needs to understand the underlying growth principles and how to maximize such growth, towards good trunk development, and initial styling all that will not take place in a bonsai pot. This is probably the hardest point in “Bonsai” to get across to folks who begin this fascinating journey. Everyone wants instant gratification, which will only come with time. The best method to grow out stock is in the ground; forget about the tree for 5-10 years. The latter, is often impractical and presents certain obstacles. The tree needs to be rotated occasionally unless it is planted in such a location where it receives the sun on all sides. We know that the North side will receive the least amount, that is why grow boxes are used, the shallower the better. Not only do grow boxes provide the capability to rotate the trees to ensure equal growth on all sides, but assists in root development while growing out the stock. They further assist with pruning and most importantly, wiring or the use of “guy wires”, which can be anchored to the box itself:

juniper bonsai

This tree (Juniperus Chinensis Blauuw) was cheaply acquired as raw nursery stock. As it can be seen, the tree was lopsided, probably the result of cramped growing conditions and the lack of being properly rotated over time, as all the foliage is pointed in one direction. After the tree was cleaned up, this was quite noticeable.

juniper bonsai

This tree was bought for trunk size, taper and branching low on the trunk, not to mention some important budding in close and on the trunk. The tree was bare rooted, received some minor root work and placed in a grow box. Over the course of the next couple of weeks the tree was examined on a daily basis, unnecessary branches were removed.

juniper bonsai

Once the majority of the foliage was removed, the tree was studied once again and the trunk line established. The trunk line is a path the tree and branches take that will eventually form the finished tree. A point to note here: “original branching” in most cases will not form or be part of the finished tree.

juniper bonsai

As time passed, more pruning was carried out of all branches that would not be part of the finished tree. Because the nebari was pretty much uniform, choosing a front should not pose a problem. A few “guy wires” were applied and the tree was left to recover. Because of the nebari, the front for this tree will be the result of where the new growth takes place and therefore inconsequential at this time. This tree is 3 - 5 years before seeing a bonsai pot. The tree was 30 inches from the soil line when purchased; I envision a finished tree in the vicinity of 12-15 inches.

If the correct container from previous discussion was selected, young trees will need repotting about every second year. Trees are normally repotted during spring. Knowing when to repot your bonsai is of paramount importance towards success. How to repot is as equally important as its aftercare. When it comes to “tropicals”, they can be repotted at any time during the year providing, they are healthy, and they are not dormant. The species guide will indicate when the tree is normally inactive. Keeping in mind that the majority or trees native from the Southern hemisphere have different dormant periods, as their seasons are the complete opposite of ours in the Northern hemisphere. My Bougainvillea to my surprise flowers in the fall, my Adenium (Desert Rose) as well.

Wiring is an important part of the process of styling your bonsai and nearly all well designed bonsai have been fully wired at least 2 to 3 times during their development. Though at first a daunting technique to master, it gives the bonsai enthusiast better control and manipulation of the trunk and branches of their bonsai.

Art principles, golden section, visual movement
No doubt the hardest part besides keeping your tree alive is to finally style it. Very few of us are born with artistic flare. We all have some to a degree or another, but the majority of us struggle with the concepts behind it. Understanding the fundamentals behind good bonsai design can be learnt. Understanding the concepts of visual movement and the principles behind the “Golden Section” are paramount in creating an overall harmonic balance in your design. The late John Naka said; “Don’t make your tree look like bonsai, make your bonsai look like tree”. No truer words were ever spoken. Many who have applied “this principle” have been harshly criticized for doing so. Nonetheless, the most famous Bonsai have followed all the rules and principles described above, in creating a naturalistic tree that seems untouched by human hands. Most beginners state that they are merely duplicating nature and thus, have styled their tree naturalistically. What they have not yet realized as they chastise the constraints of basic design, is that the hardest style to master is the naturalistic one. Walter Pall is famous for creating natural looking trees. He received harsh criticism for doing so, when he doesn’t receive such criticism; he is disappointed on missing the mark. To Walter, the more his tree his criticized, the better he feels otherwise he believes he has created a “boring” tree. Anyone who has seen Walter’s work knows the latter is not true.

Advance Techniques
I debated long and hard whether or not I should discuss advance techniques in this article. As this article was primarily designed to help folks who begin their journey, I will forego discussing it here. By the time you are ready to delve into the abyss, you will have gained sufficient knowledge of our craft to move forward. However, both Harry and Brent have numerous articles available on their sites, along with progression series to demonstrate the various techniques. You have the links, it is entirely up to you when you chose to read and apply them. One needs to remember that this journey is a long one, and full of rewards. It will take you at least two years to learn the basic skills required. Your mind set after that period will have changed. If you are able to resist (very difficult) creating “bonsai” overnight, your rewards will be tenfold; there will be plenty of time in the future to learn and apply advanced skills and techniques.

My reference material
Following is a list of my reference material. As I began this hobby not unlike many of you, I thirsted for knowledge. It was quite some time before I found and joined any discussion group. In my quest, I purchased books that covered specific details I sought. Short book reports with regards to my collection. In my opinion the following short list is a must for anyone serious in practising our craft:

Bonsai It’s Art, Science, History and Philosophy
by Deborah Koreshoff
ISBN 0908175752
Bonsai techniques Vol I
by John Yoshio Naka
ISBN 0930422317
Bonsai techniques Vol II
by John Yoshio Naka
ISBN 093042233
Bonsai in your Home
by Paul Lesniewicz
ISBN 0806907819
Home Gardener’s Problem Solver
by Ortho Books
ISBN 0897215044

The first three books in “Bonsai Circles” are known as bibles! Well the Naka’s are anyway. I have crowned Deborah’s the same. John Yoshio Naka was one of, if not the founder of Bonsai in North America. His books are his lifelong notes and were translated from Japanese. The information contained in his books is invaluable. However, because the books were translated from his personal notes, it often leaves the reader with many unanswered questions, as I found the amount of detail insufficient at times. Vol II seems to have addressed this issue but in no way compares to the depth of detail contained in Deborah’s book. I am not promoting one over the other, as these books can stand on their own merits. However I am willing to say, that if the purchase of the “Nakas” occurred after the purchase of Deborah’s book I would have been somewhat disappointed. Notwithstanding, one has to remember the source of the “Nakas”; these were his personal notes.

I first became interested in Bonsai 20 or so years ago; the information available on the subject was sketchy at best. I was led to believe that all “bonsais” were outdoor trees with special wintering requirements. I’m not talking “overwintering” bonsais, but that they required more or less a solarium, with temperatures maintained between 40 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Now with the advent of the Internet and discussion forums, we come to find out it is indeed possible to grow “Bonsai” indoors. “Bonsai in your Home” by Paul Lesniewicz is a great reference for those who prefer growing bonsais in their homes or because they are incapable of growing them outdoors for various reasons, those who live in apartments for example.

In bonsai manuals there is a very short list on pests and disease. The information contained, although somewhat useful, is vague, and thoroughly incomplete, which, led me to the purchase of “Home Gardener’s Problem Solver”. This book contains all known diseases and afflictions your plants, flowers, vegetables and trees may be infected with. Nonetheless, because this book was published by “Ortho” the recommended remedies are with the use of “Ortho products.” Do not despair, they do prescribe the treatment and providing you follow their recommendation as to which chemicals to use, you should be well on your way in treating your tree to full recovery. The latter is really a problem as many pesticides are now banned in Canada. In Nova Scotia, outside of organic treatment of pests and diseases, one is pretty much left to his own devices. However, the book diagnoses the problem you might have in great detail, including pictures of the affliction. The remainder of my reference material:

Pocket Bonsai
by David Prescott
ISBN 1843305860
Beautiful Bonsai
by Bruno Delmer
ISBN 1402714335
Bonsai, a Care Manual
by Colin Lewis
ISBN 157145988X
Grow your own Bonsai
by Colin Lewis & Neil Sutherland
ISBN 1402713584
All about Bonsai
Ortho Books
ISBN 0897214986
by Susan Lang
ISBN 0376030461
Bonsai Landscapes
by Peter Adams
ISBN 0706377672
Totally Bonsai
by Craig Coussins
ISBN 0804834202
Bonsai School
by Craig Coussins
Bonsai techniques Vol I
by John Yoshio Naka
ISBN 0930422317
Bonsai techniques Vol II
by John Yoshio Naka
ISBN 093042233
Home Gardener’s Problem Solver
by Ortho Books
ISBN 0897215044
Vision of My Soul
By Robert Steven, Edited by Andy Rutledge
ISBN 9799920302
Pines “The Master Series”
by Michael Persiano
ISBN 0976755009
Mountains in the sea
by Phan Van Lit
ISBN 0881925152
Complete book of Bonsai
by Harry Tomlinson
ISBN 1558591184 HC
Classic Bonsai of Japan
by Nippon Bonsai Association & John Bester
ISBN: 4770029926
Creating Bonsai Landscapes
by Su Chin Ee
ISBN 1580174841
Ficus The Exotic Bonsai
by Jerry Meislik
ISBN 0974952400
Bonsai in your Home
by Paul Lesniewicz
ISBN 0806907819
Bonsai It’s Art, Science, History and Philosophy
by Deborah Koreshoff
ISBN 0908175752
The art of Natural Bonsai
Replicating natures beauty

by Dave Joyce
ISBN 1402700555

May I direct your attention to an excellent periodical “Bonsai Today”. This is an excellent magazine and well worth the price in my opinion. It is available from Stone Lantern Publishing, many of the great bonsai artists share their wisdom in this publication and the attention to detail is second to none.

I hope I was able to offer some insight into this fascinating hobby. Carefully bookmark this article so you can refer to it often. There is a lot of information to digest, but nonetheless necessary. I periodically read a book from my library that I have previously read and I always find new or forgotten information on every read. Welcome to the World of Bonsai, our hobby is a fascinating and rewarding one Good Luck!!


Copyright 2006 Bonsai4me. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without permission prohibited.

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