When you make that first fateful move and obtain a ‘Bonsai tree’ you take the first step on a journey that just might last the rest of your life. It matters little that your first plant is most likely not bonsai at all. Mine was a sycamore seedling I lifted out of leaf litter in the woods on a dog walk and planted in a plastic plant pot. It could be a cheap poor quality ‘bonsai’ you buy in a garden centre, something you are given as a gift or inherit. The quality is perceived and matters little in our ignorant state of the time. To be clear I did not know what a bonsai tree even was (it’s a partly redundant phrase anyway) and had never even heard the phrase. I had never seen a bonsai tree in any form but I always loved trees and figured it would be nice to own a little one.
Some time later I bought a house that came with a ‘Koi pond’, another redundant phrase seeing as koi pretty much live in any pond. Having been an avid fish keeper since winning a goldfish for tossing a ping-pong ball into a bowl at the traveling fare back in the early seventies my new pond was welcome. You don’t spend much time around koi keeping before running into bonsai trees. Most are normally accompanied by shockingly naff attempts at Japanese gardening. Chinese pagodas, concrete Buddahs, deer scarers and so much tawdry, kitsch and tragic gimcrack it’s hard to know wether one should shit or go blind.
So, from the point I knew what a ‘Bonsai Tree’ was it all started to get a bit pear shaped. Ask anybody what ‘bonsai’ means and you will be regaled with the trite platitude about trees in trays / pots etc’. The emphasis is almost entirely on the pot. Surely it’s the ‘tree’ bit we need to focus on? However for the few of us that managed to cut through all the crap and actually get our arms around this thing the word itself is irrelevant. It may have taken me thirty years of dedicated work but I now know I don’t have ‘bonsai trees’ in fact I just have TREES. Plain simple little trees that I keep in various pots (most of which are NOT shallow, or dishes or even ceramic). That thirty years was full and busy! The crazy things I have done have impacted upon everyone close to me for most of their lives, caused me to quit my job, sell everything I ever loved and put me in hospital with life itself hanging by a thread.
I don’t suggest for a minute that, in order to be good at bonsai, everyone must do the same. However this IS a long journey fraught with danger and perils. You would assume that in this ‘Information age’ learning to grow trees and keep them small would be easy. After all just look at the volume of content out there. I always had a passion for learning new things and today what could be simpler. I recently learned to TIG weld, sure I need to practice and work at it but after about an hour I knew what I needed to buy and once it arrived I knew how to set everything up and within minutes I was sticking bits of scrap metal together.
I previously taught myself how to operate a manual metal turning lathe. Another project required knowing how to work with Marmorino (lime plaster). I learned to spray two pack paint, build a sandblaster and repair our cooker. I mastered the arcane electrical systems of British motorcycles and found out how to apply/repair the patina on my pre war truck. There is not a week goes by that I don’t have to learn something new and these days it’s all at my finger tips. What you are staring at now has incredible potential for life enhancement. Of course a modicum of intelligence and common sense are required in order to use this powerful tool. Sadly for lots of people it just leaves them looking like a tool swinging in the breeze.
Just using the word ‘bonsai’ implies that our little trees are something special, something apart or removed from their wild and unfettered relatives. Right there it all went tragically wrong and we didn’t even get to the second word. As soon as the ‘B’ word is applied to a plant folk of lesser experience totally loose their minds and all sense of reality. The word bonsai is a little magnet that attracts so many myths, hearsay, conjecture and in my working class parlance, bullshit that, in the hands of the uninitiated 90% of these little plants are entirely doomed to die a sad and lingering death. Let’s focus on the TREE bit folks!
As a trained horticulturalist and life long gardener and grower it became obvious to me very quickly that a bonsai tree was just a plant in a pot like any other. The interest and unusual appearance is created by some rudimentary shaping and the tree is kept small only by pruning. Returned to the ground any bonsai tree will quickly return to it’s natural state. Like any potted plant with limited resources at it’s disposal a bonsai tree relies upon it’s owner for it’s essential needs. These needs are simple, light, air and water. It really is SO simple that, after thirty years doing this, I am increasingly perplexed and disillusioned at why folk are struggling with such a simple thing. One guess is that so many folk have become entirely removed from nature, the rhythm of the seasons and all the wonders of life outside.
I would suggest the word bonsai ought to indicate the process of making a small tree. The successful result we can just call a tree. That saves a lot of people a lot of confusion. A fabricator might build you some nice iron gates but if you called them a fabrication, and not gates, some people might be confused because the word has several connotations. The word gates is quite specific as is the word tree. In the minds of the un-initiated bonsai is the same.
So, here’s the thing. What’s the big deal with re-potting? 99% of the questions I receive concern re-potting. Before someone buys a tree they want to know when to re-pot. After they buy a tree they want to know when to re-pot. I see people re-potting new trees they just got, re-potting out of season in fact, looks to me like the bonsai community, and I use the term lightly, is totally and utterly obsessed with re-potting to the exclusion of all else.
As a motor-head please allow me a motoring analogy. The last time you bought a car, once you got it home what was the first thing you did? I am betting it was not to go outside and remove the engine right?* Assuming you are the kind of person that could actually do that successfully I would guess that before you did you would check how it ran. Most folk buying a motor would buy a fairly decent one that would do a good job. Some folk like me would seek out the opposite because we like a project but that’s an entirely different thing.
So why on God’s green earth would you buy a bonsai tree and instantly assume it needs to be re-potted? Most bonsai trees are killed by over-work. In my estimation, the number of bonsai trees sold in the UK that survive a ten year period are a single figure percentage. A lot of those die because they are literally pruned to death, weakened as a result. A lot die because of inappropriate horticultural care, like keeping them indoors or in other inappropriate situations. A few are poisoned with fertilisers and other snake oil concoctions. But, the lions share are killed by re-potting.
You would assume this is the exclusive domain of the novice who, on a good day I could excuse for their inexperienced fumblings and daft questions. We all have to kill a few trees, that’s the price of an education. But, sadly this issue seems to afflict even some of those with decades of experience. In that case it’s rare that trees actually end up dead but inappropriate re-potting is responsible for a lot of beautiful old bonsai trees being turned into raw material as they end up with juvenile vigour and lose their maturity.
I assume folk must read that a bonsai tree needs a free-draining soil. Most bonsai trees you buy do not have a free draining soil, at least not in the estimation of many folk who are most likely not experienced enough to make that judgement. Trouble is, if you put a tree into a free draining soil mix how long will that last? Even the most open growing medium will close down after a while simply because it’s pore spaces are filled with pesky root. So you buy a tree and when you water it does not drop right out the bottom of the pot, it must need re-potting right? Perhaps a responsible person has spent several years making sure your new tree has a good strong and vibrant root system. Not always the case but mostly so. Going out and throwing that work away on an ignorant misunderstanding is criminal.
A bonsai tree, just re-potted in the right way, allows water to drop through the soil pretty quickly. However after a year or two that’s not going to be the case simply because the pot is filling with root, as it should be. So, then it takes a little longer to thoroughly wet the rootball when you water. On the other hand it can remain quite wet if it’s raining so then what? I have explained this so many times i just want to go chop my own head off. I have made videos and written dozens of times and explained it in demo’s and a thousand telephone conversations.
Bonsai trees go through phases of development. Initially we are looking for explosive rampant growth in order to build a powerful trunk. Subsequently, we have to build primary branching, secondary branching and finally mature ramification. It is NOT possible to move onto any one of these phases before the proceeding step is complete. Each stage has its own technique too and using the wrong one won’t work. Anyone ever seen a trunk double in size where a tree is planted in a bonsai pot (in the UK)? Not in less than forty years you have not. In order to grow a big trunk you need a lot of growth. In nature a big tree carries a LOT of branching and foliage. I wrote about that at length here Upside Down Bonsai
That last phase of bonsai development is not understood by many folk. Remember when you were young you had boundless energy and strength to do most anything. Later on in life that started to fade but then you were a little smarter and so managed to compensate and do more with less. That is how we mature a bonsai tree. The whole process and point of ‘bonsai’ is to bring a tree to maturity in order to create a miniature characterisation of the venerable old soldiers that touch our souls. In the early stages we have to tolerate boundless explosive growth but the WHOLE object of the exercise is to bring a tree to a mature and stable place of balance exactly as happens in the trees wild natural home.
Trees in nature follow this path. When young they grow away like weeds exploding in every direction. Later on they become larger, heavy and tall. After decades they will begin to bump up against the law of scarcity. Limited resources in the form of water, sunlight and nutrients coupled with the effects of weather and competition mean that growth has to slow and mature. Rather than making huge straight and soft vulnerable new growth, a tree will begin to create a more robust, long lived and ultimately efficient fine ramification that is very good at what it does and looks beautiful to our eyes.
The law of scarcity or the scarcity principle has two sides, one being that all resources are limited, the other side is that demand is infinite. Limited resources are one half of the fundamental problem of scarcity that has plagued humanity since the beginning of time. The other half of the scarcity problem is unlimited wants and needs. The phrase limited resources means that the quantities of productive resources available are finite. That is what creates those beautiful old and mature trees that inspired us to go out and develop the whole idea of bonsai in the first place. Trees mature once they reach a point at which the resources available to them are no longer sufficient to fuel their infinite demand for increase. At that point a more careful and measured use of those resources means a stable and mature growth pattern that allows for the best return for energy expended.
The problem with bonsai is that most folk are obsessed with re-potting to the point where a tree never manages to mature. Free draining soil, hard pruning, excess fertilisers, too much water and inappropriate positioning will keep a tree young, possibly vigorous and trying it’s best to expand rapidly. That coupled with the owners immaturity, lack of patience and inexperience mean a tree can never truly mature and actually become bonsai. All clever wiring and pruning do is make a tree ‘look’ like bonsai. Actual bonsai is a mature and harmoniously balanced tree that is at one with nature and it’s surroundings and has reached perfect equilibrium based on the law of scarcity. I would call the process of achieving that state ‘bonsai’. The successful net result I would call a TREE.
This all feeds into so much of what goes on in bonsai, most of which is entirely unnatural and ultimately harmful to trees. How many times have you seen a discussion about how to reduce leaf or needle size. A mature and balanced bonsai tree will not have overly large leaves. If it’s mature it will have good dense ramification and a stable root system which interprets as nicely formed leaves. If you are trying to make bonsai from an Indian bean tree (Catalpa) this won’t work but the endeavour was doomed from the start.
If your pine tree grows big needles it’s because it needs them at this stage in it’s life. Inducing stress by doing something dastardly is not going to help, in fact it’s likely to severely upset your tree and retard it’s progress. Young pines have big needles. To get small needles you have to mature the tree and that takes a long time assuming you know what you are doing which many folk do not. Kids have excess energy. Gagging them and stapling them to a wall by their clothes may well arrest the annoying and excessive motions about the house for a while but it will not actually turn them into your venerable grandad. As soon as they get free again it’s probably going to be worse than before.
Real bonsai technique is the art of marshalling natural forces that bear upon a tree to bring it to maturity. As in nature so in bonsai. It’s a finely balanced art form. Mastering this is a lifetimes work. Constant obsession with repotting bonsai, free-draining soil, obsessive fertilising, unrestrained pruning and unnatural meddling is feckin’ stupid, don’t do it. Learn your horticulture folks!
Well said Graham, I had many long but fruitless debates with the members at my local club about when and why we repot.
Also about leaving collected tree alone to recover before any thought of styling.
I do like you ramblings full of good advise and straight talking.
A very good read Graham, my journey with bonsai has been a 30 year learning curve and I have made every mistake possible and all the things you mention in this article I’ve done. I think it takes a certain maturity of the person to ensure the tree reaches maturity too. Being young I wanted to develop bonsai fast and I had read that means lots of fertiliser and free draining soil. I killed some nice trees along the way but I learnt. In the last 10 years I’ve only lost 1 tree and that was from a very unusually hot day and I forgot to move the tree into the shade, busy work, 2 kids etc when I got home from work I could tell straight away the tree had taken a hit. It’s taken me the best part of 20+ years to learn to leave the trees in their pots and if the tree is healthy why repot. I think people repot for a variety of reasons, different pots they want to try, obsession with soil and fear of the unknown they can’t see what’s going on in the pot so they want to get the tree out and have a look. Now as I near my 50s I have learned to let the tree tell me when it needs me to repot it. Seems to be working a lot better than 30 years ago when I first dug up a small oak seedling and killed it in the middle of summer!
Excellent article, Graham. This will become one which is linked repeatedly and referred to constantly.
I must say, I’ve removed the engines from more new-to-me-or-a-mate minis on day one than I could now count.
I’m reluctant to use the word ‘bonsai’ for what I do. I only use it in conversation so people realise I’m talking about a small tree, rather than a full-size tree. Neither have I served an apprenticeship with a wizened old master, which is another automatic assumption by some.
Right-on about the pot thing. It’s curious how many in social media-land obsess about using the smallest, shallowest pots possible. Couple that with very free draining soil mixes, hot weather, plus a long day at work and trouble might indeed come your way. Seems to be a pre-requisite for a ‘proper’ ‘bonsai’! Penjing artists don’t seem quite so obsessed about these things, as far as I can see, especially for non-exhibition type single tree specimens in private yards.
Time for a broader church ‘Western’ movement, if you ask me!
When this Covid-19 crap allows us back in pubs, I’l be raising a glass to you.
Every time I start to think how I might ‘improve’ my trees, I hear your voice in my head ‘NIGEL – leave the f*****g trees alone!
And it works.
It is sad to see that bonsai seems to do more stress to you these days than good. I love to watch your old videos where there is a noticeable sparkle in your eye, and I can tell you’re excited about teaching and talking about the trees. Now it seems you’re just about to bitchslap everyone. I understand, it’s just sad to see that people don’t latch onto your enthusiasm and knowledge, but just simply continue to “consume” “bonsai”, and this just drags you down.
I just want you to know that your love for trees, and that sparkle in your eyes (which I’m sure is still there, albeit a little hazy) is what awakened “bonsai” and a love of trees in me. I always loved trees, but you helped me to REALLY love and appreciate trees. And I want to know more about the truck.
As always, a loyal lover of your work, from the USA.
It’s true, the world has worn me down. I am so sad that after all these years people still think it’s Ok to call me an idiot. I just don’t have what it takes to deal with the haters and cruel people out there. I have done my best and now just want to fade away into a private world with a few trees and a couple of bikes.
The truck is a ’42 Chevy’.
Excellent points here, as always Graham. I learn more from your videos and articles than from my Bonsai Europe subscription – this may be a statement about the people who write those articles (which are nevertheless very good quality), or perhaps its about the absence of articles from you in those magazines? While they might not pay well and may indeed add to your current stresses, that magazine could almost certainly benefit from your insights.
The first bonsai expert I ever met was the late and great Harry Tomlinson in Nottingham, when I accompanied my dad visiting Sheffield University. I was about 12. I bought a Japanese Maple which seemed very exotic in the late 80s. It died, but I learned a lot from it.
I’m astonished when to repot is a mystery for folks. If the tree’s well established, gently lift it out of the pot – does it look root-bound? Are there healthy white fine roots? Does it look crowded? If not, leave it. I’m far more foxed by how long to leave wire on – which depends on the species, time of year, health of the tree, weather, phases of the moon, the chaos effect…
I’ve bought a couple of tools from you this week because the money I’d put aside for the annual Heathrow Bonsai Show is burning a hole in my pocket (and because Harlington Sports Centre remains quiet for the foreseeable future). I hope my order doesn’t add too much to your box-moving workload! All the best.
I’m sure many people appreciate your best. I can’t fathom how anyone could call you an idiot, but then again I’m astounded every single day by people and what they think is right, normal, and good. The world is going to shit, but the trees keep being trees.
I remember you said bonsai gave you a reason to wake up in the morning, when nothing else could. I know what you mean. As long as you can enjoy that, all is not lost.
A ‘42 Chevy in the UK must be quite the rarity. Really cool. Was hard to tell what it was behind those boxes. Must be a blast to cruise around. I have a ‘51 Chevy panel truck, yet still in pieces. Things aren’t made like they used to be.
Keep on keeping on, Graham. I hope we cross paths someday.
Robin. To be fair most folk have been a lot more appreciative since covid lockdown. However what is considered okay to say to each other nowadays was fighting talk where I came from. I always wanted a mail order business because I am so bad at dealing with folk and back in the day of paper catalogues and phones folk were great. For the first 10 years I don’t remember any problems. However in the last 3/5 years both Catherine and myself have been in tears more than once. It hurts so bad when you can’t just hit someone who makes the love of your life burst into floods of tears.
We both love our ratty old Chev’. In 42 Chevy only made the truck for one month before the government requisitioned all production for the war. Ours is all original and still has it’s factory 216 stovebolt and three speed crash box. No brakes to speak of and those skinny tyres. An Oregon truck that was in the hands of the Portland General Electric company for decades on end. There were PGE maintenance schedules in the doors from the early 70s.She starts first hit every time and we love the old girl.
I’m sure it’s tough on all of you at KB. Surely if you could reach through the phone or the keyboard to beat someone for making Catherine cry you would. Maybe the covid situation will make some more people aware of their selfishness and ignorance. It seems the entire thing is waking more people up to a lot of things, anyway. So that’s good.
And wow, all the way from Portland. That’s cool. Probably some interesting history in the journey from the PNW mountains to the coast of the UK. And all original. Awesome acquisition. My Chevy has the 216, too, and it’ll remain mostly original when it’s put back together. The trucks that built our countries. If you ever do more courses and I’m able to attend, I look forward to seeing your truck.
Until more blogs…