Growing, creating and keeping bonsai trees is REALLY hard. After more than 30 years I should know. Over the course of those busy years I have seen a few things, done a lot of other things, had countless failures and even the occasional success. There is just SO much we need to know. It’s not that growing trees is hard. They grow everywhere we leave alone and thrive in every nook and cranny of the planet where water and light are available. Why then is it so hard to keep a little example in a pot? Assuming we have soil, water, air and light what’s the problem?

Well, of course it’s US. Think about everything we know that’s f’d up in our world today and with a little study and careful thought you will discover we are the underlying cause of pretty much all our own problems. NEVER underestimate the ability of human nature to overcomplicate simple things. Assuming you have a garden go mark off a square meter of soil, put a string around it and then just leave it alone, entirely. I will guarantee that within a year you will be able to find some sort of tree beginning to colonise the space. If it’s so easy to get a new tree in your garden what’s so hard about keeping bonsai?

At it’s root (excuse the pun) our problems stem from the fact we simply do not know what we do not know. There is no shame in that, we all start off knowing nothing and over time we learn. It’s what we do and it’s called compound learning. Most people know about compound interest and why you should save money early in life. The interest on interest causes the invested amount to grow exponentially over time. A similar process also governs your life learning and bonsai potential?

Learning works just like compound interest. The more you try to do and learn, the more you understand how things work and how to learn better. These insights and experiences combine to create compound learning. A long way down the road a little fact can have a profound effect on what we know because we have amassed so much knowledge. However in the early stages the little details have a less pronounced effect because there is less context and interaction between salient facts. That’s obvious when stated but rarely considered when we embark on learning a new discipline. Initial progress is going to be slow.

For success-based activities, there’s a standard learning curve called the Sigmoid curve (or S-curve). It grows exponentially just like compound interest but it starts off slow and has a plateau of mastery at the top. Put simply it’s like a heavy truck that is slow to pull away but once the momentum starts to build progress is strong unless we try to go too fast then the rate of acceleration will again begin to slow before reaching a terminal velocity. It’s at this point most folk will plateau because further learning is really hard. To keep moving forward is hard and the steps are very small. It tends to feel like we are just treading water. I might say that the juice is just not worth the squeeze, or so it seems.

Learning Bonsai

The Sigmoid curve

The Sigmoid curve shows that going from nothing to capable could take as much effort as going from capable to absolute mastery. Things vary from the standardised curve, but it’s a rule of thumb that can inspire determination. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers: The Story of Success, repeatedly mentions the “10,000-Hour Rule“, claiming that the key to achieving world-class expertise in any skill, is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing the correct way, for a total of around 10,000 hours.

Back when I was a fresh faced youngster it was common practice to take a spotty sixteen year old school leaver and pair them with a grizzly old bloke in the workplace. It was called an apprenticeship. It gave a boy the chance to not only learn a trade but to become a man and be a productive and respectful member of society. It also gave an old fella a fulfilling chance to pass on his experience and, often the opportunity for a good laugh at the lad’s expense. Stories of ‘elbow grease’ and ‘striped paint’ are legendary. In the printing trade one lesson involved the discovery that red ink gave off heat. A fact you would discover was not true whilst struggling to get it off your thoroughly covered and soon to be bright pink hands.

An apprenticeship was typically five or six years by which time a young fellow would be considered competent and as a journeyman would be allowed to work as a qualified person. However it would be a long time before a journeyman would become a fully elevated master craftsman, if ever. To become a master, a journeyman has to submit a master piece of work to a guild for evaluation. Only after successful evaluation can a journeyman be admitted to the guild as a master.

All told, learning to be very good at something was, and is, going to be a long road. Sadly however, in many instances today we have become lazy and just want a short cut. In our digital age, apparently, everything is simple, easy to achieve and guaranteed gratification is instant. Remember that scene in the Sopranos where Christopher is hoping to become a screenwriter? It’s going badly and he can’t figure out why especially considering he bought a computer that he thought would do a lot of the work for him. Learning the simplest of things is going to be a life long journey assuming we want to be any good at all.

The one thing I have learned about learning and bonsai is that the more I learn the more I have to change. Just because something does not suit me does not mean it’s not true. Often I have to bend to incorporate some significant factor. I know a lot of people that have purchased expensive bonsai and then, mid-summer go on holiday without making appropriate arrangements for care of their bonsai. Often on their return their charges are dead. Many times I have been asked to “do” something. Trust me, if I could raise the dead I would no be doing this! Solution? Don’t go on holiday, go away in winter or make suitable arrangements. To carry on as normal, having taken on the responsibility of a living thing, is simply stupid. If it were a child one would be locked up and publicly excoriated for such actions. Success demands change, unless of course you already have more than you can cope with.

Learning bonsai is like building a house, one brick at a time. Bonsai really has to be a way of life that will ultimately touch every area of your life and help you be a better more patient and considerate person. At least, in my head that’s how it works. Nothing in bonsai happens in isolation, it’s all connected. Every single day I am asked the question “What sort of soil do I need for XYZ species of tree”. For the inexperienced that’s a perfectly valid question but, in reality the answer could easily run to three hundred pages if your friendly bonsai master were to give you the answer in context. Ultimately it’s complicated but only if one is at the bottom of that Sigmoid curve. At the top it’s easy, knowledge is king.

Back in the day when I knew everything about everything, everything was pretty much simple and obvious to me. I was what is colloquially known as a dickhead. In my later twenties I woke up and realised I had to get busy. Thankfully I learned two powerful guiding principles for success.

1. In order to be successful do what successful people do.

2. Spend time with people who are where you want to be.

A good example of how that worked occurred in my late teenage years. Back then it was a big deal to go fast. Most cars were laughably slow and few road-going motorcycles were genuinely quick. I had the biggest bike I could afford (we didn’t borrow money with the aplomb folk do today) but my car was given to me for free. I loved Mini’s back then and I was consumed with making one go fast. With no internet it was down to magazines, books and word of mouth if I were ever going to figure out how to achieve such a feat.

Eventually I came across, and kept hearing just one name. David (The Wizard) Vizard. The man’s work on the Mini engine and it’s performance is legendary in those circles. As far as I could tell nobody had really taken that little engine quite as far as he had. Not being a mate of mine all I could do was buy his massive book Tuning BL’s A-Series Engine. This became the pillow on my bed. Finally after close to a year of intense study I began to understand the principles of performance. Long story short, one of my Mini’s ended up with over a hundred horsepower at the wheels on a rolling road. That’s over double what it started with and made a genuinely fast (if terrifying) little car that could easily beat all the stock turbo offerings of the day in a traffic light drag race.

I achieved my goal because I dedicated a year of my life to understanding what Mr V was teaching and then did what he did and low and behold I got exactly what he got. Could it really be any simpler?

Today everyone’s first port of call with a question to answer is Google. They are pretty good at matching things up. However it is down to you to decide if what they serve up is relevant, helpful or even correct. In my own research about virtually anything a Google search seems to lead me to a similar question, often asked on a forum or social media group. These are open to comments by anyone and often go like this…..

I was recently searching for information about an obscure American made item called a Reece Fish Carburettor. The first hit on Google was a forum about old cars where someone was doing exactly what I was.

Here is the first response….
Wow, haven’t heard that name for a few years. I haven’t got any first-hand experience with them but……..No first-hand experience? Better shut up then because you are not going to help me out with your unfounded opinions.

Go online and search a health related question and see what happens. I had a bad case of kick-starter foot. Like an idiot I had been kicking a super tight rebuilt Harley Davidson engine and without really concentrating had been using the ball of my foot. The result was badly damaged tendons between the front and back half of my size 10. It was hard to walk and ultimately took a year to heal. The result of a Google search was at best….. your an idiot, your foot if fucked, cut it off and die…. A painful little swelling on your head will inevitably be cancer eating it’s way out of you. Nobody would even consider it might just be a zit.

Try the same with bonsai and you will very quickly descend into a morass of incalculable and insurmountable misery. As an example a friend of mine had a little mushroom appear in the pot of an old yamadori larch one autumn. Asking online he was advised the tree was infected an should be burned as soon as practically possible. Ten years later the tree is in robust good health as is the fungi that produces it’s little mushrooms every year. In the words of Edgar Allan Poe “Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see” and don’t burn bonsai trees.

It’s easy to be impressed as a fresh faced newbie and even easier to get your head turned by a good looking something. As I mentioned earlier, being a master of something is entirely judged by those that have gone before. The status of “Master” can only be bestowed by other masters. Self proclaimed masters are no such thing. Self confidence, bullshit and bluster are no substitution for a life of learning. Pick your Sensei carefully and guard your mind jealously. Picking up every bit of trash that crosses you path will leave you up to your neck in worthless trash.

I am often asked how one should go about learning the art of bonsai. My answer will always be the same five step plan.

1. Get a copy of Bonsai Basics by Colin Lewis. The best book on the subject in the English language.

2. Get a copy of Principles of Horticulture by Charles Adams

3. Put together a full set of Bonsai Today magazines. Read and study the work of Japanese bonsai masters every single day until you drop dead.

4. Buy lots of cheap plants (not bonsai) and learn to keep them alive. Bonsai horticulture takes 10,000 hours to understand the basics. Having accomplished that you will be ready to start thinking about bonsai trees.

5. Having completed the above your Sensei will appear to you. Learn all that you can by doing what they do and then some.

Add 50 years of tireless practice and just maybe somebody will call YOU a master and bonsai will seem easy but remember….

“The keenest sorrow is to recognise ourselves as the sole cause of all our adversities.”