Starting out in bonsai is a tough thing to do. It’s easy to get it wrong, be misguided, be deceived or bamboozled by the ignorance of other egotistical self proclaimed ‘experts’. The fact that someone has a large following does not guarantee they know what they are doing. My own mentor introduced me to the concept of smoke and mirrors. Trust me, there are very few genuine ‘teachers’ out there. There are even fewer who really know what they are doing. The big problem is that as a fresh faced newbie full of excitement and enthusiasm we simply cannot tell the difference between an egotistical dumbass on a popularity trip and the bonsai master that would delight in our achieving more than they ever did.
My own mentor told me to judge what folk had to say and were teaching based on the bonsai trees on their benches. Whilst that is true to a point it’s not foolproof, it’s easy to buy a good bonsai tree. Sure those with limited experience will shag them up eventually but as a beginner we cannot tell the difference between a tree that is going forward and one that is slowly dying. When I was starting out it was all books and magazines and we did not travel with impunity like folk do today. I was very easily impressed and those favourable impressions stick to us like a limpet, often for life. Given time it can become clear that those early impressions were in fact not helpful but often they become guiding experiences for years on end.
Today there are simply endless opportunities to pick up nonsense that we would be better off not knowing, just look at any social media group focused on beginner and intermediate bonsai. As an example I recently saw a post from a guy accompanied by a picture of a bottle of “bonsai fertiliser”. He was asking how this should be used and applied. There were endless replies from folk, evidently of limited experience, chipping in their opinions. I really can’t figure out why he did not just flip the bottle over and read the label. At the end even I was confused and I have formulated fertilisers and studied the science of plant nutrition for decades and had experience of thirty years keeping thousands of bonsai trees. My point is that, as fresh faced newbies, we do not know what we do not know so have no way to know what we need to know. We also lack a shit filter by virtue of our inexperience and can be easily impressed by what is actually….. shit and as I said, favourable impressions tend to stay with us.
Sadly I cannot impart a life time of experience in less than a lifetime. Even writing this is fraught with problems because what is in my head, that I hope to convey, cannot possibly be interpreted by the readers brain in the same way. That may be because I am a poor writer but I do my best. All a teacher can do is show the way, the student must always walk in front of the teacher and follow his masters guidance but it is incumbent upon the student to move forward and make the progress. If we are not moving forwards the very best teacher cannot guide us. Those that ‘follow’ another so called teacher are just lackeys destined to remain servile flunkeys. In order to forge our own path we must live our life by conviction and take responsibility for our decisions. That’s not easy in todays society where we give up so many choices to others from school teachers to employers and politicians. Personally I believe we should be trail breaking pioneers that stand alone, stand up for our own choices, pay for our own mistakes and owe no other man anything. A smart head and a pioneering attitude will pretty much guarantee a successful life and that includes the pursuit of bonsai excellence.
Getting back to the point I was hoping to make about figuring this whole thing out. I have noticed that a lot of what folk are doing is all about taking away from a plant in order to turn it into bonsai. That’s what we in Norfolk call ‘ass backards’. Let me explain…… Some smart Alec (as it turns out Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the minimalist architect) once said that “Less is more”. That’s a massively mis-understood expression that has become a widely used and abused platitude in many walks of life. I was bottom of the class in maths but even a dummy like me knows that if I have less than £10 then I don’t have £10, I certainly don’t have £12. What our learned builder was trying to say was that it’s not always desirable to overcomplicate something and i am a hundred percent in favour of that idea. Many solutions to complex life problems are very simple, often laughably so.
This ‘less is more’ platitude has widely become an excuse for laziness. After all, who want’s to spend all day wiring a large plant to shape for bonsai when we can cut it in half, wire one branch and impress our audience with our artistic prowess and courage. Just because someone once said “make the smallest tree you can” does not give any of us a pass to commit these atrocities. I have lost count of the number of times I have seen that sort of talentless brutalisation presented in the egotistical name of ‘art’. Surely the whole point of art in a bonsai context is to create an expression of something beautiful, a signpost to an inspiring landscape.
Obviously within the process of creating a bonsai tree from a bushy plant it will be necessary to do some pruning. Pruning is a process of taking away from a plant. The more we take away the less there is that remains. Once this tips over a critical point our plant will begin to suffer and the more we take away the greater the suffering. A plant is just a solar energy generator that combines water and carbon dioxide with sunlight to create energy for growth. Every little bit of a tree we prune impedes it’s ability to live, a trees life does NOT come from the soil or it’s roots, all those things do is support the trees solar generation. How else would a cutting work? It takes sunlight and creates enough energy to grow a new root system where there is none. Whilst a deciduous tree may be able to generate new growth from old wood this is only achieved by virtue of previously stored energy and once that is depleted it’s all over.
I see beginners and a lot of folk, that ought to know better, taking away vast amount of a trees structure in order to ‘style’ a bonsai and before the tree has had time to recover they are chopping it’s roots off and cramming it into a silly little pot. This process is repeated over and over every single day on social media. Whilst some folk are lucky and get away with it most do not and on a ten year timescale most of those mis-guided endeavours do not create bonsai trees. Sadly the tide of ignorance is rising and there are relatively few who can resist the flood.
Creating and maintaining bonsai trees has relatively little to do with wiring, carving, re-potting or pruning. The key to creating bonsai trees long term is in GROWING. Everything we do takes away from our tree. Sure we have to steer our plants in the right direction which is where our techniques come in but the real magic only comes from the plant and it’s positive response in relation to our request. Much like the teacher guiding his student I outlined above. The skill in creating bonsai comes from understanding how to encourage and manipulate a plants impulsion to grow whilst not impeding or slowing down it’s forward progress. As it turns out a ‘bonsai master’ is the guy who teaches the tree how to become beautiful. Old bonsai trees display the skill of their masters in managing their growth. To the inexperienced eye a tree can look stunning but to those who really know their stuff the same tree is like a naked photo, there really in nowhere to hide for good or bad. I see a lot of people putting those naked images online. Their presentations are offensive and they should be mortally embarrassed but the cloak of ignorance is a powerful thing.
If we are going to create beautiful bonsai we have to learn how to begin adding to a tree rather than just focusing on what we take away, we are going to have to learn how to GROW bonsai. One of the most significant lessons I learned came from Marco Invernizzi many years ago. At the time there was a silly notion going around that a ‘true’ bonsai artist ought to be able to make a beautiful bonsai tree from pretty much anything. We were at a workshop with Marco at the local bonsai club and the material that had been bought in by most of the participants was shocking. Our Italian friend does great work but even his master, The Magician, Mr Kimura would not have been able to conjure up bonsai trees from the assemblage of fetid road kill on offer.
Being a true professional Marco proceeded to talk to us all about how to prepare raw material for styling. A process that can take years to complete in order to create the right type of foliage and structure in the right place alongside maximum strength and health supported by the right kind of root system. This is a skilled process that takes a long time and significant experience to learn and understand. If completed properly the first styling of a tree can create the appearance of an aged bonsai. Just going to a nursery, buying an untrained tree, chopping the shit out of it and giving it a scruffy wire before bending it into a contrived shape is NOT bonsai, it’s ugly and disrespectful of the nature bonsai is supposed to substantiate. Sure we all have to practice but PLEASE, do that in private, keep it to yourself for the first ten years.
So, having got all that off my chest let’s get to the point. For many years I have been expounding the virtues of developing bonsai trees in large pots, in particular tall narrow commercial horticultural style pots (Ercole Air pots are a good option too). Over more than twenty years I have developed trees and restored old suffering bonsai in such containers. It’s possible to grow and develop bonsai up to ten times faster than in bonsai pots whilst maintaining control of what’s going on in a way that’s difficult to achieve growing in the ground. Remember, bonsai trees go into bonsai pots. A plant in a bonsai pot is NOT a bonsai tree. This story is about a Chinese elm.
How things change in bonsai, this big Chinese elm, the subject of this diatribe goes back with me for a lot of years. About fifteen years ago it was possible to buy these beautiful craggy old well ramified trees for peanuts. A lot we had were simply stunning and the supply was so plentiful we pushed them out the door like they had fleas. I sold a totally hollow elm that took three men to lift and had been in a bonsai pot for fifty years for well under a monkey. Today the tree would fetch in excess of £7500. This particular elm was sold out of the garden for just over a hundred fine British pounds. It’s owner held onto it for around ten years and it even spent some time in Greece / Cyprus or some such place. On returning to the UK and strapped for cash it was offered to me and I bought it back for £400 and what a sorry state it was in. Not re-potted for years and leaves just a few millimetres in length and no new growth at all and lots of die back.
Because a tree like this is typically very weak there is a limited number of options to turn it around. Conventional re-potting would have killed the tree that literally sat on a knife edge. Also the root system was so compacted that nothing short of a sawzall would have dealt with it. However as I said before a simple solution is normally the best. I filled my favourite tall pot with garden soil, a sandy loam, nothing special. Fill the pot sufficiently that the tree, less it’s pot, can be placed on the soil leaving about an inch or two of headspace. Finally pack the soil around the existing rootball and cover with about a half inch. Place in full sun, fill the headspace with water to thoroughly soak. This can be done at any time of year. My good garden soil was populated with plenty of worms and those are important.
After completing the above all that is required is a little water every few days. Within two months I had about 4” of growth all over, more than the tree had been able to make in several proceeding years combined. I added a light application of Green Dream fertiliser and let alone. By seasons end I had about 9-12” of growth which was left untouched and the tree stayed in the same exposed position all winter. The following year I was able to make an application of Green Dream early in the spring as new growth commenced and as normal throughout the season. By the end of that summer I had about 12″ to 24″ of growth all over and, for a Chinese elm, massive leaves.
The following spring as the buds began to open I gave the tree a hard prune right back into secondary and tertiary branching. Setting up a nice branch structure was easy on an old tree like this and largely involved removing weak thin growth and everything growing down or inwards. After that the tree went back into it’s exposed position outside and within a few days buds were exploding from everywhere. That summer I let the growth extend untouched as normal.
Come the fourth year I again did a hard spring prune and over the following summer started pruning new growth back to a couple of leaves once it reached about 3 inches in length. Fertilising carried on as normal but watering was scaled back a bit. Dense growth with tiny internodes was the result and as density increased the leaves became smaller. Over those four years the trunk increased in diameter and started making that beautiful flaking bark so typical of old Chinese elm.
This spring, as the new growth opened I decided it was time to go back to a bonsai pot. At this point you would expect a fight to clear out the original compacted rootball from it’s previous tiny pot. However this growing technique fixes that. Most of a compacted rootball is actually dead root material. The combined action of explosive growth, fungal and bacterial action supported by the garden soil and the action of worms really does clear that all out and re-potting was a breeze after I sawed off the bulk of the deep rootball with my sawzall. Now the tree, much larger more craggy and impressive that it ever was with significantly improved branch structure and a beautiful root system is back in a more suitable sized bonsai pot.
Going forward, to improve the fine ramification the tree will remain in it’s exposed position in full sun. Work to maintain high vigour and rampant growth will continue as before. The only change will be pruning of the new shoots will happen much earlier, at an inch or less of extension. This will probably require a few snips every day throughout the summer. It may also be necessary to thin out the leaf mass from time to time in order to keep inner branches healthy. By years end ramification will be so dense it will practically be shower proof, like an umbrella. A healthy Chinese elm will fill a pot with root in a year and depending upon what I see next spring re-potting may happen annually or at the most every second year. Leaving an elm too long in it’s pot will result in reduced growth and progressive weakness, that’s how we got here in the first place. Owning a quality Chinese elm is a bit like having an iron ball attached to your ankle but what use is a hobby with nothing to do?
Hopefully this example illustrates my point that in order to create beautiful bonsai trees we need to learn how to add to a tree and harness it’s growth in order to help it be beautiful. Mastery of every influence upon the tree from sunlight to water coupled with judicious application of bonsai techniques like pruning is imperative. I would say that at no point in the last five years has anything been done to interrupt or reduce this trees vigour and strength. Over that timeframe I have spent no more than a half dozen hours messing with the tree. However in that same time period the tree has spent 44,000 hours becoming more beautiful than ever. Our input, when applied correctly should be very small indeed. Trees want to be beautiful, all we need to do is allow them to be just that.