This long winded article concerns this interesting picture I took earlier in the week. Do bear with me 😉
Bearing in mind the incredible information resources we have at our disposal is it not ironic that the scourge of our day is stupidity? Sadly our beloved hobby of bonsai is not immune from this either. I know this because every day I am talking with well intentioned folk who are seeking to learn about cultivating bonsai trees but after a stint online are so baffled and confused they end up not quite sure which end of their little tree should actually go into the soil. I have quite literally had folk in tears after following bad information they have read on line resulting in expensive failures. At this point I would normally descend into some bad tempered rant but i’ll resist the temptation this time.
In the history of mankind we have never had so much information available to us. Just the tap of a few keys and we have the collective wisdom of the world flooding across our screens. Much of this information is good, most of it is well intentioned but almost none of it is put into specific context. It’s also rare to find good original information that is from a genuinely qualified source. A lot of information online is created by SEO (search engine optimisation) companies and this is often cobbled together from random articles that tick all the boxes for search engines but has little to do with actually cultivating bonsai trees. There is also a lot of information available from very enthusiastic amateurs who try to make up for a lack of experience by substituting it with enthusiasm. There are obviously a million other scenarios that ultimately lead the well intentioned but inexperienced person down a blind alley.
The big issue is that we do not know what we do not know. I remember all too well being an enthusiastic young fellow just getting into bonsai. That was back when I had a full head of hair and there was no internet. My only recourse was to the local library where I ordered every book they listed about bonsai trees. A lot of those books suffered the same fate as I outline above, well meaning information, often re-hashed by publishing companies and absolutely no context. However publishing companies would tend to seek out experienced practitioners to write their books in the first place so I would say, by and large, things were a little better back then. However, I felt like a guy with a broken down car, a box full of tools at my side, all the information on how to fix said car but I had no hands.
They say ‘information is power’ but that’s cobblers. We are drowning in information these days but anyone my age will be constantly aghast at the stupidity we see at every turn. Information is only useful if we know how to use it to get a particular job done. Information out of context is a dangerous thing when it’s acted upon without regard to the bigger picture. Sadly today folk want a quick fix. A couple of lines of text or a two minute video is the preferred antidote to all of our ills and angst. Sadly cultivating bonsai does not work like that. Trees move slowly and anything we do will mostly have consequences that are often not obvious until it’s too late. In order to communicate good quality information about bonsai, particularly to those of less experience it’s important that the information is put into context. In particular any information we pick up needs to be applicable to exactly what it is we are trying to achieve.
Anyone who has spent any time either on this blog, reading the information on our web site or with me in person will know I write long. I talk long too, there really are no short answers to the questions I get about bonsai because the cultivation of bonsai trees is an expansive subject that incorporates a whole world of influences. I have lost count of how many times I have been asked the seemingly simple question”how often should I water my bonsai”. If you have kept bonsai trees for any length of time you will be very aware of what a huge question that is. If you know me at all you will also know that my answer will be long. A garden centre will tell you to water every day. Simple, easy to understand and it gets you off their back but it’s also one of the primary reasons for the failure of most of the trees people buy to start their bonsai journey. I figure that if you know why you have to water (some folk don’t) and what watering achieves you will be set for life and bonsai tree failures will be few and far between for you. Sadly by the time I have given the abbreviated version of that particular discipline most folk have fallen asleep or forgotten why they called in the first place.
It’s really not my fault. We live in an almost inconceivably complex world and understand very little of what goes on around us (in spite of what some folk may say). At an existential level all things are connected and we really don’t get how that works at all. Science would like us to believe we are super smart and know what’s going on but look at the world in the cold light of day and try to convince me, with a straight face, that is actually the case. We’re stumbling around this world like a pissed up bull in the proverbial china shop and making just as much of a mess. I doubt, at an existential level, we could find our own arse with both hands and a sat-nav. So when it comes to bonsai we are at what might be called a disadvantage from the get-go.
Understanding the relationship between plants and their world is not something humans have really got to grips with yet. I feel that if we did we might be treating our planet with a little more respect. When cultivating bonsai we pluck those plants out of their natural eco-system of support and place them in the most stressful situation a plant can endure other than a fire maybe. Where trees are concerned they are programmed to be as big as their environment will allow. That means that standing right there on square one we have set our face against nature. Fortunately plants are infinitely adaptable and can overcome considerable adversity, just as well.
I have banged on endlessly about learning to ‘read’ trees. If we can read our plants we will be very well placed to understand what they need, see problems before they become serious and reduce the stress our plants are under in order for them to perform at their best. A happy healthy plant grows well and with a skilled hand to guide it becomes beautiful mature bonsai and stays that way long term. Happy tree happy owner right?
The problem is the signs a tree gives to us are not particularly significant and often hard to figure out. As an example yellowing of leaves could mean a lot of different things and as often as not it’s NOT just a nutrient deficiency which is normally the go to answer. I have been stupid enough to keep anything up to three thousand plants at a time over the last thirty years. Because I love what I do I have a quite unnatural ability to retain information about my trees, often going back decades and so, over those years, I have learnt how to interpret what plants are saying and act accordingly where required. For those with just a few pots and few years under their belt it’s hard to figure out. There really is no way to distill this into a compact form. How do you condense a lifetimes experience into a few pages?
Learning to read what plants are telling us is the ONLY thing we really need to know in order to be successful with bonsai. All the wiring, carving and styling is actually very simple to master with some concerted effort and practice. All of that good stuff is really only the groundwork upon which we build bonsai. Once the first styling of material is done the real work of creating bonsai can begin, it’s the start, not the end. As an example I live in a four hundred odd year old house. It’s a nice spot but the magic is not the old house some good-ol-boys threw up years ago, it’s the story of what has gone on in the house over all of those years. A good bonsai will always display the skill of the person that formed it in the first place but the real magic is in what the plant does in the decades afterwards and the plant will only conjure that magic if we give it what it needs to prosper.
Because there are SO many variables it really is impossible, even for a long winded gas-bag like me to lay out this subject in an easily digestible form. Learning to cultivate bonsai trees genuinely is the work of a life time and even that may not be enough. Even after all these years I am still learning about bonsai. In fact I would say I am learning at a faster rate than ever before simply because one thing leads to another. The secret to this, as with any other big task, is to break it down into small elements, pace ourselves and have a realistic expectation. You are not going to be a bonsai master in five years in fact you won’t be a bonsai master in ten years either. Some folk I have met didn’t become a bonsai master in forty years. As far as I am concerned the salient point is to be ready to never stop learning and NEVER be satisfied with what you are achieving. I have always said that on the day I know I have done my best work I will sell everything, buy a big leather sofa, spark up a massive cigar and watch the world go by. In the past I have done that with a lot of things I have been involved with, gone as far as I wanted and given up overnight. To date I feel bonsai is only just beginning to open up to me so I should be here for a while yet. Our only limit is in ourselves, come the day we say ‘i can’t‘ it’s all over. I have always said that if someone else can do something so can I. Perhaps I can’t be as good or carry something as far but being as good as we can is surely what we are here for. We only have ourselves to blame if we don’t achieve our goals.
Every time I step out into the garden there is something to learn. Outside is the home of plants and we are perfectly capable of experiencing what they do. Smell the air, look at the light, feel the wind and the temperature. Light, air and water are the magic ingredients that give us plants and understanding this relationship is key. There really are no quantum leaps to be made in the understanding of bonsai just small steady steps which build bit by bit. I figure that so long as I know one tiny thing more than I knew this morning i’m still on the right path.
I have no intention of summing up all the variables I consider important in the cultivation of bonsai trees. Nobody is going to read that. This week I was out watering and came across this good example of what I am talking about. The picture shows two examples of zelkova. Both cultivated in the same spot and treated the same of late. I would also guess, knowing something of the trees histories, that they are broadly of a similar age and level of development in regards to branching, ramification and foliage density. So what can we learn from this picture? What are these trees telling us? Why is one going to drop it’s leaves weeks before the other?
This is actually a really simple one to figure out if you look hard, all the tell-tale signs are there. Look at the leaves, the green tree has some brown tips from summer scorch whereas the other is perfect. The tree on the right is in a larger pot and so could be drying out less in the heat and this would be supported by the lush growth of moss on the soil surface. That would suggest the right hand tree has had a more consistent moisture level over summer that would lead us to believe it is in good health. The brown tipped scruffy leaves of the other tree suggest possible poor health, erratic growing conditions and a plant that has been suffering heat and drought induced stress.
Looking at the soil surface is always a valuable part of assessing the condition of a tree. Moss looks great with bonsai. In Japanese gardens moss is used to duplicate the tranquility of nature and, through meditation, take the viewer of the garden to a peaceful, serene place. Moss only grows in places that are left undisturbed for long periods so we know this tree has not been re-potted for a while whereas the tree on the left has no moss growth which tells us it was re-potted more recently. Watering both trees indeed confirms that because the tree on the left drains excess water almost instantly.
Watching the growth of these two trees over summer in conjunction with the above details fills in the blanks and determines what we will be doing with these two trees in the near future. The little green tree was in fact re-potted this spring having been in the same condition as the tree on the right last year. As a result this summer it has made close to a meter of summer growth allowing us to prune several times and dramatically increasing it’s ramification. Watering has been required two or three times a day. Conversely the tree on the right has only made small growth this summer, needed pruning once and it’s only needed watering once a day. So, why the difference in leaf colour?
For a more detailed explanation of leaf colour change see Bonsai Autumn Leaf Colour .
The colour of a leaf results from an interaction of different pigments produced by the plant. The main pigment classes responsible for leaf colour are porphyrins, carotenoids, and flavonoids. The primary porphyrin in leaves is a green pigment called chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is produced in response to sunlight. As the seasons change and the amount of sunlight decreases, less chlorophyll is produced, and the leaves appear less green. Chlorophyll is broken down into simpler compounds at a constant rate, so green leaf colour will gradually fade as chlorophyll production slows or stops. Chemical interactions within the plant, particularly in response to acidity (pH) also affect the leaf colour.
Our beautiful looking tree with it’s dazzling display of colour weeks before it’s compadre is actually displaying the effects of stress induced by being pot bound. Autumn leaf colour can be affected by acidity and the root zone of pot bound bonsai tend towards the acidic. A pot bound bonsai tree has less air in it’s soil and this dramatically reduces it’s rate of respiration and root development and can even lead to anaerobic respiration. For more detailed explanation see Choosing Soil for Bonsai Trees.
Our pretty coloured tree is crying out for help. It’s becoming weak, another year in this condition and it will begin shedding branches and reducing it’s ramification in order to preserve itself in straitened circumstances. Our little green tree has suffered a surfeit of energy this year, like a kid on a sugar high it’s got more energy that it can use, not good when we are trying to ramify a delicately twigged zelkova. It won’t be re-potted next year and it’s growth rate will be better suited to the requirements of it’s future development. Once re-potted however our multi trunk tree will go off like a firework next summer and will grow like a weed. A year of that and it’s full vigour will be recovered and we can then progress with it’s development as bonsai. This is clearly a delicate balancing act and one that is very easy to get wrong.
In bonsai we have two primary growth cycles we use to develop our trees. In the first instance we need incredible strong irrepressible growth with big leaves and huge extension from a big vibrant root system. That’s how we produce a nice trunk and big fat primary branching. After that we need to slow the pace down whilst we develop secondary branching and ramification and settle our tree down into maturity. Over the years I have seen folk developing beautiful mature bonsai trees into raw material by not understanding how this cycle works and re-potting way too often. I have also seen beautiful mature bonsai allowed to descend into almost inconceivably poor condition or even death by not re-potting often enough.
As an example take a look at this large shimpaku juniper. We picked this up about eighteen months ago. The tree was originally purchased form a large well known bonsai nursery twenty five years ago and cost a good four figure sum. Good bonsai like this used to cost a great deal more than they do today. When I got the tree it looked considerably worse than it does today. I imagine that it was a very impressive piece back in the day. That’s what twenty five years of terminal ‘deaf ear’ and a reluctance to be sensitive and flexible does to bonsai. I just can’t bring myself to sling this out even though it’s going to take me ten years to restore the tree.
It’s important we learn to listen to our trees and do right by them. The result of ignoring the signs will be massive losses. I have lost count of the times I have been told of a tree “I have had it for years and it just died“. If that happened to you, truth be known you killed the tree through ignorance and an inability to learn and adapt. Dead trees are normally expensive either in terms of lost money or time. To an intelligent person losses are the price of an education and a great opportunity. To a dullard failure is reason to give up and do something else. Anyone who ever manned a display of bonsai will have heard the recurrent words “Oh! I had a bonsai once but it died“. Sometimes we have to put aside the things we know and be open minded to something new. Just because I read something in a book thirty years ago does not make it irrefutable fact. Having the ability to look at your bonsai tree as though you have never seen it before and understand what you see, free of preconceptions, is one of the most valuable skills any of us can master. Being honest with ourselves is another and that can hurt.
Lessons cost money, good ones cost lots.
A poster I saw years ago said “A wise old owl sat on an oak. The more he saw the less he spoke. The less he spoke the more he heard. Why aren’t we like that wise old bird.”
I say Keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut and as we say in Norfolk “Keep yew a troshin”.
A great piece of work, full of good advice. But, honestly how do you find the time to come up with all these lengthy posts?
Amen to that. Every. Single. Word.
I understood about 80% of it. Is that a good sign or a bad one?
Fantastic piece Graham and one can relate to. bonsai still gives me satisfaction because I have adapted my learning and skills over the years starting in the late eighties with the hobby and got to a point and thought I new something I have re learned again and again and still prepared to keep learning and enjoying it more than ever…
When will I become a bonsai master 🙂
Our club has just had there yearly show and yes the usually questions. I had one but it died, where did you keep it. (usually inside) how much did you water it.(usually too much). What kind of tree was it. The answer to this one always gets me. IT WAS A BONSAI! But getting back to your arcticle. a few members asked where some of my trees where, I explained to them after years of being in a bonsai tray they looked tired to me and I have put them into foam and wooden trays so they can regain the health so I could do some work on them and refine them more. I only have about 40 trees. Mainly deciduious, but you are right if you look and study your trees they sort of talk to you and tell you what they want.
Wise words as ever, it’s interesting that someone new to Bonsai would almost certainly go for the group because it looks nicer.
Appearances can certainly be deceptive.
@ Derek Stevenson
Passion, my friend. The answer is : Passion!
Dear Graham, thank you for one more excellent piece of writing! I always enjoy your articles even though I have not managed yet to fully implement the curriculum….