Oscar Wilde wrote “With age comes wisdom, but sometimes age comes alone.”

Turns out he was right. Scientists have found that growing older is no guarantee of growing wiser, if wisdom is an intuitive knack for grasping basic beneficial behaviours. I’m not sure why it was necessary to be a scientist to figure that one out. It appears to me that putting the word ‘scientist’ into any circumstance these days adds weight regardless of how ludicrous the proposition but, let’s park that or I’ll be here all week. Basically, not everyone who gets old gets smart, take a look around you.

I recently had the pleasure of a visit to the garden by what we will respectfully call a rank beginner taking his first steps into our world of bonsai. After an hour I was not a little discombobulated with the odd questions and mixed up thinking presented to me. It’s years since I stood face to face with one of those newbies. With thirty bonsai summers under my belt, it’s hard to remember when I stood in my visitor’s boots. Thankfully I never had the internet to m(f)uck up my formative steps, though for the most part I did a good job without help.

What annoys me most is the fact that, as a tenderfoot, nobody told me to be patient because this was going to take a very long time to master. Todays ethos of instant gratification is diametrically opposed to every single principle and element of the craft of bonsai. A ten-minute video or a snappy article following a web search is NOT all it takes to master our noble art. I now understand there really is no equal to experience in life, and assuming we were paying attention, grey hairs do indeed bring wisdom, simply because that’s how long it takes to sort our bumbling selves out.

My advice to anyone beginning their bonsai journey involves three steps….

1. Stay off the internet.

2. Buy as many cheap plants as you can and do a bit. The more plants you have the faster you will be able to gain hands on practical experience.

3. Get a copy of Colin Lewis’s book Bonsai Basics and actually read it.

Given the above and with just a couple of years experience one will have a basic grounding of what’s involved.

Creating bonsai trees is primarily a horticultural discipline with a little artistic fairy dust sprinkled on top. Given the season it’s like a plate of mince pies which look so much better with a dusting of icing sugar even though it is of little consequence to the main event it does add a little magic. However many folk appear to need to be ‘artists’ for a number of reasons, I say “Salute”. If we are making good trees who cares what we’re called right?

Bonsai trees become special thanks to their growth which produces maturity, it’s got little to do with wiring and carving. That should be viewed as the pastry in my analogy, we can’t do without it but it’s just a part of the tasty whole. Having hosted a thousand workshops I have to say bonsai is not about what ends up on the floor, it’s about what remains on the tree. Most novices cut off too much and don’t know how to grow it back and the more we cut off a tree the more we weaken it. In turn that slows growth and thwarts the desired progress.

Back when I was a rank novice I made a concerted effort to find a well experienced mentor to help me out. After several failed liaisons I fell upon Kevin Willson and the rest is history. Sure I didn’t learn everything I know from my raffish mate, a lot of folk had a hand in my development. One nugget Mr Willson did give me was to judge what I was being told in the light of the quality of the owners own trees. Bonsai don’t lie.

My first experience of a quality bonsai show was a visit to the Ginkgo awards hosted by the inimitable Danny Use, that was back in the late nineties. Whilst there I ear-oled another mentor of mine, David Prescott who agreed to walk me around the exhibition. That was a seminal moment for me. After a while I noticed DP kept on talking about “good work”. Personally I was primarily impressed with the quality of material on display. However it quickly became apparent that he thought a lot of the ‘best’ material was poorly worked and therefore sub standard for a show at this level.

Over time I have come to understand what we were doing there. A lot of the best ‘bonsai’ are created by the ‘smoke and mirrors’ technique. I remember sitting in a hotel restaurant with the legendary Walter Pall who was, in his idiosyncratic manner, very concerned about the success of trees in exhibition that were primarily supreme examples of quality wiring. In effect, this allows a skilled operative with top notch material to create the appearance of an old and mature bonsai tree without the input of the time it takes to develop genuine maturity. Walter’s argument centred around the notion that without the wire one would not have a bonsai tree. We could argue that until the wee small hours, which in that case we did.

My Prescott’s appreciation of ‘good work’ centred around the patient application of quality technique over many years in order to produce a result which, to the untrained eye, appears entirely natural. Today I agree that any sign of the hand of man detracts from the overall deception of the bonsai artists work. My goal is to have trees that look like they were always thus. Sadly that takes time and a lot of it and that also assumes we know what we are doing at the outset which of course we do not.

Having got those summers under my belt it is now my considered opinion that it takes ten years just to figure out which end goes in the soil. After twenty years, generally, we are no longer in a rush, which makes the whole endeavour much more enjoyable. By the time we reach our third decade I personally feel like a rank beginner all over again. My own ignorance is a little overwhelming. I recently watched a documentary on NHK Japan about an old guy who sharpens knives. It has taken him forty years of full time dedication to learn his trade. This guy has been virtually penniless for most of that time but now is widely considered the very best in the world and chefs wait up to two years to have their best knives attended too by him. What hope do we have of becoming bonsai masters when we dabble as an occasional hobby?

All of the above came into sharp focus recently following my attempts, as a rank beginner, at rolling cigars. I have been a brother of the venerable leaf for many years now and I decided it was time to commit to the process fully. Over the years I have taught myself a lot of new skills, how hard could this be?

We all know a professional makes just about anything look easy. This story made me smile and is salient here……

A giant ship engine failed. The ship’s owners tried one expert after another, but none of them could figure but how to fix the engine.Then they brought in an old man who had been fixing ships since he was a young. He carried a large bag of tools with him, and when he arrived, he immediately went to work. He inspected the engine very carefully, top to bottom.Two of the ship’s owners were there, watching this man, hoping he would know what to do. After looking things over, the old man reached into his bag and pulled out a small hammer. He gently tapped something. Instantly, the engine lurched into life. He carefully put his hammer away. The engine was fixed!

A week later, the owners received a bill from the old man for ten thousand dollars.

“What?!” the owners exclaimed. “He hardly did anything!”

So they wrote the old man a note saying, “Please send us an itemised bill.

The man sent a bill that read:

Tapping with a hammer………………….. $ 2.00

Knowing where to tap…………………….. $ 9,998.00

So, after watching a few Youtube videos of how to construct a cigar I got to work. A year later my scruffy sticks are beginning to resemble what I hoped but it’s been bloody hard and frustrating. I have had cigars that are leaky, plugged, don’t draw and spontaneously combust. Others have fallen apart, some refused to catch light at all and no two were even remotely the same. I have been working hard all year and studying hard. It’s amazing just how difficult this is and the tiniest detail is massively important in a successful outcome.

Just to make my life a bit more difficult I decided I wanted to roll perfectos. For those not in the know, this is a short fat little number that tapers at both ends. The sucking end should be narrower than the lighting end. This looks not unlike a cigar you might see in a cartoon, think Baby Herman from Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

The perfecto cigar.

Now, a cigar is made up of three elements, a bunch of filler leaves, a binder to hold it all together and a high-quality wrapper to make it all look good and give a pleasant experience on the lips and fingertips as well as the nose. Most cigars are straight and applying the wrapper, which has to be both neat and tight is not too difficult to achieve once the knack is mastered. However wrapping a flat strip of leaf around the compound curves of a perfecto is not a little tricky. I found a video by a guy who made this look as easy as dropping eggs on the floor. I watched it a couple of times and got busy. After a month I was extremely frustrated and getting nowhere.

The frustrations of a beginner in a skilled craft are all but second to none. I was being very dense and no amount of practice was helping. So, I went back to the video that was entitled something like ‘There is an S in Perfecto’. I had the construction right but my wrappers looked like Nora Batty’s pop socks. At three in the morning I studied this guy’s work for the dozenth time and all of a sudden it dawned on me, the wrapper has to be cut in a very specific exaggerated S shape, coupled with a very specific rolling technique the fog cleared and I got it. HOW could I be so thick? The whole point was the S, it’s in the title and I watched it a dozen times before I got it, what an absolute dumb-ass.

My newfound revelation and a little practice has resulted in a passable representation of a perfecto. I won’t be working for Davidoff any time soon but as an amateur it’s all about little victories. These are hard-won and should not be discounted. As the Chinese proverb says, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”.

I recall, as a bonsai beginner I was struggling to understand how to work with scots pine, now my favourite species. Every endeavour with this beautiful tree ended badly, they all died. Eventually I got to keep them alive but beyond that I was getting absolutely nowhere. At that time one of Colin Lewis’s books came into my possession and it had a chapter on Scots. Within that was a paragraph about the development of foliage and the mystical back budding. I read it and was none the wiser. So, I read it again…..and again and again. After more than a dozen attempts, I gave up in frustration. However, I did persevere with my pines. It was probably a year later I revisited that paragraph and after a few more read-throughs the clouds parted and the sun shone on my face, I got it.

The obvious answer to the above is that I am unusually dense. Too wrapped up in my own ideas and opinions to receive the wisdom of my betters. On the other hand we are all familiar with the saying “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” I have been teaching bonsai for decades now and in that time I have learned a lot. I do believe that in teaching we begin to understand what it is we know. In the formulation of the presentation of knowledge a deep understanding slowly dawns.

I have been writing articles and presenting videos and lectures on bonsai technique for over twenty years now. It’s always been my goal to help folk attain the success they desire by whatever means possible. I have no interest in keeping any secrets to myself, I don’t consider bonsai to be a pissing contest. I have always gladly shared what I know to the best of my ability. I spend countless hours trying to make this all appear as simple as I can. I have never done a video or written an article where I did not put in ALL of the important stuff I know folk need to have in order to gain an understanding of the subject. Still it has always baffled me why folk often just don’t get it.

Some of you will remember the video I did regarding the vexed subject of how long wire should stay on a tree.

The Burning Question

Even after all that I still get folk who ask me the question. Being a cantankerous old sod I get very annoyed about this. I spend a lot of my time getting asked, what to me are stupid questions and I find it very hard not to reply with a sarcastic and demeaning quip. However in light of my stogie rolling experience, I see there is something more going on here.

These days doing anything practical is a simple process of finding a good video or article (not easy in itself I know), following the prescribed steps and then applying ourselves to practice until the action becomes second nature. Of itself this appears to take out all the guess work, heavy lifting and painful experience of mastering a new skill. But, based on the communications I have with folk and the experiences I have had in learning new skills this is simply not as straightforward as it appears.

My opinion is that life experience is like building a house. We all get excited and like to skip to the fun parts but unless the bit we can’t see is correct the rest is nothing more than a liability that could fall down and kill us without forewarning. That bit is the foundation. It appears some basic experience is required in order for us to make good sense and practical use of the skills that seasoned practitioners endeavour to give us. EVERYTHING in life is more complicated and involved than it first appears. Take driving, it looks effortless once mastered so why on earth do learners make such a hash out of it? Most of us were there once upon a time.

Mastering bonsai requires a lifetime of diligent work. Just like building a house each piece has to be put in the correct place in the appropriate way. Using the wrong materials and technique may not be immediately significant but in the grand scheme it will be important. Often a part may appear incongruous until the time comes for it’s employment. In my own case it was not until I realised the complication of wrapping a perfecto that the significance of the S became apparent, before that I figured it was just unnecessary complication or a guy trying to be clever. So I conclude that experience is built one element at a time. Being impatient and trying to cheat, cut out the practice or shorten the timescale required will leave some draughty holes in our construction that will give rise to a wry smile from those ‘in the know’.

Just take it one step at a time, keep an open mind, a sharp eye and an attentive ear. Hang onto the things that currently don’t make sense, they may be required in the future. Be prepared for a lifetime of learning and the reward and fulfilment that brings with it along the way. We are not in a race here, there’s no medals and no trophy for the winner there’s just the journey and it’s a good one! In fact the journey is the whole freaking point.

At this juncture I know it’s customary to wish all of our lovely loyal readers, customers, supporters, friends and family a very merry Christmas and a happy, healthy and prosperous new year and a hearty THANK YOU for support over the last year. So, there it was!

Thank ya’ll from the family at Kaizen Bonsai. We are off for a lay down and a big drink. Personally speaking it’s been a crap year for us apart from your valued input and support that has genuinely helped us through. May God bless every last one of you with his grace.