Being Christmas I thought some of you lovely people might have time for a long winded diatribe so here it is….

A Cautionary Tale

We humans are creatures of habit. It may be fashionable to ‘mix it up’ but at the end of the day most of us are at our best when fully immersed in familiar surroundings and routine. That’s a good thing, our world needs us to be there, be reliable, turn up on time and do our bit for the common good.


One of our most reliable habitual behaviours is that of taking the route of least resistance to a desired destination or goal. That however can, on occasions, not be a good habit and just might lead us to frustration and failure. Where bonsai trees are concerned being idle is just asking for trouble. Over the last couple of years I have seen some instances where this issue has resulted in utter devastation and the catastrophic failure of some beautiful bonsai trees not to mention many wasted years, frustration and a spectacular loss of money and effort. I could post pictures but they are just too distressing for words so please take my word for it.


Taking the route of least resistance in life is a bad habit that leads at best to mediocrity. By and large our lives are the result of the choices we make. I know there are some pretty powerful outside forces that have significant influence over the lives of many folk but bonsai hobbyists, by and large, are lucky folk who have the privilege of living healthy, wealthy lives in good places. But, those of us living such privileged lives have a severe problem….. we have everything we need at our finger tips and good living is easy. We might say life is tough and we are ‘so busy’ but most of that ‘ business‘ is being expended on obtaining things we don’t need like expensive holidays or bonsai trees.


I do not resent success, I started work at the tender age of twelve years in order to assure mine and now forty three years later I am still at it. There was not a single one of those days I did not do something to assure the progress my family now enjoys. No holidays for Potts, not for twenty seven years now. I am a working class lad with a mediocre education, zero social skills and left school as a no hoper. I have bought my education in life at a high price and one of the lessons I learnt early on was that Easy Street is a dead end.


I was a spotty teenager when I read a profound statement.

In order to be successful all you have to do is do what successful people do.

I learnt right there I had to spend my life with people who were where I wanted to be. From that moment onwards I spent my time with older people, clever, prosperous and successful men with good families and great businesses. They constantly gave me a hard time and I might have been a target for derision but nobody was happier than me. My ‘mates’ ran rings around me, took the piss and cost me a fortune but those life lessons have proven to be of infinite value to me all these years later.


Back when I was at work everyone in our factory would piss and moan about what a sweatshop we all worked in. Poor pay, lots of stress and pressure and a miserable boss constantly riding us. Everyone relentlessly threatened to leave but we were all besties in our misery. One day I did leave and to this day not a single one of those folk has said a word to me, not even when I went back there to say hello, I ended up chatting with the boss. A good friend of mine who spent his life in places like that said it was like having a bucket of crabs. They are all trying to escape but as soon as one gets up there and makes some progress the others all pull him back down.


It’s nice to know where we are, be comfortable and enjoy a reliable routine. That’s largely achieved by hard work, in this world security is a valuable commodity that was earned at great cost and should be appreciated every day. We do not have a right to this comfortable life and it should not be taken for granted, it cost a lot of folk a great deal. Taking the route of least resistance is a sure fire way to loose what we have.


In order to achieve anything in life we need to educate ourselves. You would think today that would be easy right? Apparently we live in an ‘information’ age. However, as with all things related to humans information is subject to corruption. The word information is defined as

1. facts provided or learned about something or someone.

2.what is conveyed or represented by a particular arrangement or sequence of things.

It’s this last definition that applies to the subject under discussion or at least it will be when I eventually get there.


Where bonsai trees are concerned there is no such thing as a straight answer to a seemingly simple question. There are just SO many variables involved. I spend a lot of my time helping folk to figure this stuff out. By far the largest proportion of that time is spent hacking through the undergrowth of misunderstanding and the inappropriate application of received wisdom. It’s imperative that we learn the basic principles of horticultural science. Once we have that knowledge we will be able to figure out what is working and what is not. If something we do has good results we need to know WHY, conversely we need to know WHY something is going wrong so we can correct it.


Received wisdom could also be called ‘common knowledge’ that is held to be true, but may not be. The received wisdom says a plant that has pale yellowing colour is suffering from a nutrient deficiency but that’s simply not true in most cases. In extreme cases a nutrient deficiency, particularly iron, can cause chlorosis, yellowing of the foliage. However the causes of yellowing foliage are legion and in my bonsai experience nutrient deficiency is very low on the list of likely causes. Knowing our horticulture enables us to discern precisely what is wrong and correct the issue. Therein is my point, received wisdom is insufficient to correctly discern and address a problem. Only scientific study (and understanding) along with practical experience and application is up to the task.


Sadly today what we call education is, by and large, just the learning by rote of received wisdom. Practical learning by physical experience, experimentation and failure has been swept away in favour of systematic instruction. Real personal learning has been sacrificed in favour a measurable standard to support political ends. In my opinion this type of learning stifles the inquisitive mind and oversimplifies complex subjects. In reality most bonsai knowledge falls into this category, it’s just tradition passed from generation to generation.


For a moment let’s think about some of the gospel truths that have guided bonsai accumulators for years.

  1. Bonsai need free draining soil
  2. Bonsai trees are re-potted in spring
  3. Bonsai trees need winter protection
  4. Fruit bearing bonsai can die if they set too much fruit
  5. Systemic chemicals are poisonous to bonsai trees
  6. Bonsai are potted in a sterile medium.

Whilst there may be an original truth in all of the above their over-simplification and blanket application can be extremely damaging in some cases. It’s just NOT true that we have to sieve out all our bonsai soil to remove fines. In some cases it’s desirable but in others it’s beneficial to add more fine material. We need to know the detail, success in life is all about the details.


So, to the point of all this. Three times recently I have been working with folk who are having serious problems with their trees and this has been going on for a long time. In particular the issue has been largely (but not exclusively) effecting coniferous trees. We went through all the usual things like soil, re-potting frequency, siting, watering etc’. In all cases there were no obvious reason for the issues and these were not inexperienced folk. It took me a long time to get there but in the end the problem came down to fertiliser. Specifically the OVER USE of fertiliser.


Education is important in all walks of life but obviously we do not know, what we do not know, so it’s hard to know if there is something we don’t know and are missing. That’s where spending time with folk who are where we want to be becomes valuable because often they DO know what we don’t. It takes experience to diagnose problems. That’s why doctors don’t recommend self diagnosis via the internet and why car mechanics think most people are stupid. Nine times out of ten, in our ignorance we come to the wrong conclusion. We all start off ignorant in life and don’t even have the sense not to piss in our pants. Good parents help us with those things and set us on the road to toilet success. However in later endeavours we often find ourselves on our own and so when we decide to go out and take on a new thing we have no idea if what we are learning is entirely good or bad. The only frame of reference we have is in relation to other things we have experienced.


I learnt a lot about cars, motorcycles and engines in general. I disassembled and completely reassembled a mini engine when I was ten years old. Entirely on my own and without adult help. However if I decided to become a doctor that particular frame of reference and way of doing things would be largely irrelevant. Mammalian bodies bear no similarities to internal combustion engines and my mechanics tools would be pretty much useless, except perhaps a ball peen hammer.


So, lets consider fertilisers. At some level most of us realise that plants need nutrients to grow. Not many people seem to know how or why plants grow but, based on life experience we know that growth is fuelled by food and THAT is where it ALL goes to shit and why I have been seeing SO many dead bonsai trees. There is evidence that early farmers were using animal dung as fertiliser on their fields 8000 years ago. It didn’t take us long to figure out the value of ‘shit’.


This has been important. Consider that until 1910 and the perfection of the Haber-Bosch process synthetic nitrogen fertilisers were not available and we were entirely dependant upon organic materials to support our food growing agriculture. That pretty much managed to support a world population of about 1.65 billion. Today we have around 7.5 billion mouths to feed. It is estimated that (in the year 2015) 48 percent of the worlds population is entirely dependant upon synthetic fertilisers to provide their food. This means that in 2015, nitrogen fertilizers supported 3.5 billion people that otherwise would have died. In fact, it’s estimated that nitrogen fertilizer now supports approximately half of the global population. In other words, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch — the pioneers of this technological breakthrough — are estimated to have enabled the lives of several billion people, who otherwise would have died prematurely, or never been born at all. It may be the case that the existence of every second person reading this attributes back to their 20th century innovation.


So, we need to eat in order to grow right? We all know that a lack of food or a lack of correct nutrients will cause us significant developmental and long term health issues. Therefore it’s logical to assume that plants are the same. Whenever I was sick as a kid my wonderful old grandma would cram me full of food. The old wives take about feeding a cold… Turns out that, by and large that’s cobblers. But that’s probably buried deep within the minds of many of our older generation. If you are sick you need feeding because you are lacking something that has caused weakness and resulted in illness. Feasible but bollocks.


By extension we assume that if a plant is not growing it must need feeding. If a plant is off colour it must have a nutrient deficiency. Couple that idea with the fact that, years ago, some crafty bastard coined the phrase “Plant Food” in order to sell more of his fertiliser (by taking advantage of this ignorance) and you quickly end up with a dead bonsai tree.


Plants do NOT eat food. Plants MAKE food.


The base of earths food chain, the organism at the bottom of the pile are plants. Be sure nothing else could survive without plants but plants do not need food in the conventional sense to live, plants MAKE their own food. Mammals ingest complex organic material that are broken down into their chemical constituents in order to be assimilated. That food also has a physical characteristic that is important too. The size of food particles can affect the extent to which nutrients are digested and made ready for absorption. The way in which carbohydrate is absorbed from the bowel depends to some extent on the presence of dietary fibre, even though the fibre itself is not absorbed. This is all fiendishly complicated but it happens inside us all the time without any input from us.


Plants can’t do that, they do not have stomachs, or brains, or nervous systems. Plants do not need ‘food’ in the sense we know it to live. Plants make their food in the form of simple carbohydrates (sugars) from sunlight, carbon dioxide and water. The only additional nutrients a plant requires are for the building and maintenance of cells and complex structures that keep the plant upright and functioning. Plants largely but not exclusively absorb these nutrients through their roots which requires nutrients to be dissolved in water. Other nutrients are absorbed through the leaves and these are primarily in gaseous form though some may be absorbed through water entering the stomata or surface of the foliage.


So, how do these chemical nutrients help a plant grow if they do not actually cause growth in the way too many crisps make us fat? Lets take nitrogen as a simple well known example. Most folk in bonsai know (at some level) that nitrogen makes a plant grow, but how? Nitrogen is a major component of chlorophyll (the green stuff) and it is also a major component of amino acids which are the building blocks of protein. Put simply extra green soaks up more sunlight which produces more energy for cell division and having all the components available to create and maintain new cells means more plant, assuming there is enough light and carbon dioxide of course.


Put simply, in order to live plants do require some chemical compounds that enable them to build and maintain their life giving structures. Some of these are freely available, water, sunlight and carbon dioxide. Others are possibly less readily available, particularly for plants growing in pots, like bonsai trees. That small amount of soil has a very limited capacity for the support of micro organisms and fungi so valuable in the supply of nutrients. All of these elements need to be kept going by good husbandry and regular applications of a nutrient rich substance we call fertiliser.


How best to achieve this is, by a country mile, the most divisive subject in bonsai. There has been a raging argument in bonsai growing circles for decades as to whether chemical or organic fertilisers are better and whether growing media needs to be organic soil based or inorganic aggregate based. Anyone still bitching about this really is just displaying their ignorance but to be fair the construction and long term maintenance of a vibrant rhizosphere is a complex subject with infinite variables.


I have met no end of folk over the years that grow incredible healthy and vibrant bonsai trees but upon investigation they really have no idea how they achieved success. Other folk work really hard but never seem to make it. Stupidly we might call the former ‘green fingered’ like it’s some form of preordination or luck. However I have found those who are less successful often suffer from a lack of patience, unrealistic goals and information overload coupled with a lack of observational skill and practical long term experience. The trouble is if we get off on the wrong foot at the outset how do we get back in step? Very often the more we learn the further we get from the truth. Even quality information can be detrimental if we lack the skill or knowledge to appropriate it correctly. Compound ignorance is a powerful thing.


My advice is to abandon your bonsai books, online groups, forums etc’. Enjoy those things for the pretty pictures. Buy a book called “The Principles of Horticulture”. Then go and complete an RHS certificate in horticulture. Absorb all that and it’s unlikely anyone would be left with difficult questions in regard to the cultivation of any form of plant. From this starting point it will be a lot easier, more satisfying and rewarding to learn bonsai cultivation from practical experience. It will take a couple of hours to learn to wire properly and about a year to build your speed. Styling of bonsai comes from constant practice and observation of trees in their natural habitat. Throw in a little practice with the carving tools and most folk will be doing pretty well. That’s about five years work. How hard can it be?


Bonsai as a hobby is not something that rewards impatience, it’s not a competitive sport, and it will not feed your need for acceptance by others or reward pride. Anyone suffering from those pernicious traits is largely doomed to failure. Ultimately we do not own bonsai, they own us and remembering that will keep the green eyed monster of envy at bay. So what has that got to do with fertiliser, in case you’ve not already figured it out?


Whether you are using organic or chemical fertilisers the ultimate outcome is the same, both provide chemical nutrients a plant can use to grow. Organics also support microbial activity within the soil, that is, fungi and bacteria that break down the organic compounds into their constituent chemical parts. These organisms have a huge beneficial effect for bonsai trees in their small pots, I have written about that at length in previous posts here. Because the natural breakdown of nutrients from organic compounds happens slowly these types of fertiliser like Green Dream work best simply because every day a small amount of nutrient is released. Plants absorb water pretty much constantly and so there is always enough nutrient, assuming a quality product is used, to meet the plants needs for that day.


Chemicals on the other hand offer a super refined chemical solution that can be absorbed instantly, assuming the plant is taking up water at the time. Chemicals are best applied in the morning when a warm day is in prospect. Applying in the evening or in wet conditions when water uptake is reduced will make them less effective and can have negative effects. Chemicals will not, by and large, support microbial activity and certainly will not introduce or encourage it where an inorganic growing medium is used. Chemical fertilisers have a very short period of availability within the rhizosphere of bonsai. It’s been proven that a chemical fertiliser can be fully dispersed throughout a plant within twelve hours of application. However in bonsai, and in particular, within a poorly constructed or inappropriate growing media, a chemical fertilised may have dispersed within just a day or two leaving pretty much nothing for the plant. Regular watering and a soil unable to hold nutrients (an atomic function) can mean insufficient nutriment is available quite quickly. The old practice of using a balanced chemical fertiliser at half strength once a month will produce a desperately sad and weak tree over time.


The hardest aspect of bonsai for most people to grasp is the time it takes. Today we are all about delivery, getting things done, performing. After thirty years playing this game I can confidently say it is going to take ten years of hard work and deep involvement with plants before the uninitiated even grasps the horticultural basics. Once that’s in place we can make a start. Good quality raw material will take ten years to develop into a passable bonsai here in the UK. Poor material, growing from small stock or starter trees is likely to take even longer. I know of folk that have been growing bonsai for over thirty five years and they have never really even grasped the basics and have little idea what a bonsai tree actually is beyond the trite “ Tree in a tray/pot “ platitude.


Given that fact it’s no wonder we will try every trick imaginable to shorten the process. That in itself is tragic because ‘bonsai’ is not about a goal, there is no finishing line. In my opinion bonsai is a process, there is no finished trees at the end simply because as the years go by we gain a deeper understanding of what is going on and our “finish line” keeps receding into the distance. But because we are intrinsically impatient and the fact that, somewhere along the line a crafty marketing man came up with the term “Plant Food” we put two and two together and get ourselves in a pickle. We all know more food means growth, particularly as we get older, and we know our trees need to grow more and so a logical person will conclude that more food is the way to go. Good for fertiliser manufacturers but very bad for your bonsai. It leads to the utter devastation I referred to at the beginning.


Overuse of chemical fertilisers will result in the death of your bonsai trees! This in NOT an uncommon problem and of late there has been an epidemic. I have  several thousand pounds worth of (other peoples) dead bonsai to prove it and have seen the walking wounded too. The reason why is simple, you learned it in school chemistry.

Osmosis: Osmosis is the spontaneous net movement of solvent molecules through a selectively permeable membrane into a region of higher solute concentration, in the direction that tends to equalise the solute concentrations on the two sides.

In other words, two solutions of different strength will seek to combine to become uniform. Too much fertiliser in your soil will basically draw water out of your trees roots in order to achieve this which can result in critical dehydration of the plant. If not corrected the plant will suffer loss of foliage, then ramification, then branches and eventually it will completely die from root desiccation. Best case scenario growth will be severely retarded.


In my opinion stick to organic fertilisers for bonsai, it’s convenient, safe and natural. If you must use chemicals use them for their intended purpose. Only use chemicals as directed and also at the recommended frequency. Don’t use a product designed for hanging baskets for bonsai trees. Don’t use Tomorite for bonsai, that nasty stuff is literally toxic to bonsai of all types it’s just all wrong. Just think about what a tomato plant has to do in a few weeks. Does your bonsai have to do that? Bonsai trees grow long and slow. Flowers, tommys and cannabis have to do a lot in a short time, they burn bright live fast and die young. Trees work on a thousand year time scale. If you can’t cope with that find another hobby.


December 2019