Time For A New Approach?

Thoughts on our first faltering steps into bonsai.

A small part of our daily crust is derived from the sale of bonsai trees although thankfully we have other income flows as my burgeoning waste line amply testifies. A good friend recently visited and as is usually the case our conversation centred around bonsai. As we chatted merrily in the warm July sunshine it became evident that my friend was a little frustrated with the slow progress of his trees and was keen to know how long it would take before they looked something akin to my own collection. As is almost always the case in these matters a simple answer was not possible.

In my travels around planet bonsai I have the privilege of teaching many workshops. Hosting a workshop is in my opinion a great privilege and not one that should be taken lightly. I love to teach what I have learned and in doing so it is multiplied back to me many times over. I have students at all levels of experience who attend, some have literally never touched a tree before whilst others have many years experience in the trenches. One unifying desire ties us all together and it is wonderful to see very experienced practitioners discussing bonsai with the rookies as though their intervening years of experience never happened. So what is it that all our efforts come down to? Owning a ‘finished’ tree? …. My experience leads me to believe that what drives us all and at every level is a desire to see improvement in our trees.

When you boil it down to this it is easy to teach a group of folk who’s experience levels differ enormously. I recently had a student who had never kept bonsai before and for the workshop he selected a 6″ Chinese elm import and a Japanese maple with a less than pencil thick trunk and 4 enormous leaves. His selection raised a few sniggers amongst a couple of the more seasoned troops. Once I had put everyone else to work I was challenged as to how to approach this young man. No doubt he felt embarrassed about his little trees, especially upon seeing what everyone else had bought along. But, having literally walked in off the street and into a bunch of strangers I felt his courage deserved the best reward I could give and, as he knew absolutely nothing about bonsai I felt excited at the prospect of drawing on a blank canvas. The one asset the young man had was a lack of mis-information which is the biggest hindrance to teaching bonsai and so for an hour we walked around the nursery and I taught him what bonsai is and how it works at a nuts and bolts level, what we are trying to achieve, how trees grow and how we can exploit their growth patterns to achieve our goals.

I think there is often a view among club members country wide that workshops are unnecessary beyond a certain point in the experience scale. I also think that they can be viewed as a little elitist or cliquey. This recalls to mind something that was said by one of the worlds great motivational speakers ” If you want to be successful all you need to do is do what successful people do.” All of the best bonsai teachers regularly participate in workshops with other teachers who in their turn learn from others and so our experience broadens. I learned a great deal from the young man in the example above who’s lack of knowledge and willingness to learn where his greatest asset and I can guarantee he went away from that workshop having received much more than everyone else.
So what am I saying? Isn’t this a paradox? In order to learn the most we must know the least and have the worst possible material upon which to practice. Or should we only sit at the feet of the greatest masters?

To be ignorant is forgivable as being the natural human condition but to remain ignorant is not. We have the ability to learn which is common to all of Gods creation but we also have the ability to teach. Learning from a teacher who is more experienced in the ways of the world enables us to accelerate our learning. For instance I have spent the last ten years studying, researching and experimenting with Taxus baccata, a tree that is eminently suited to bonsai work but one that has many quirks that conspire to make it challenging, evidenced by the lack of good trees on the show circuit. So, if you would like to work with this species you can spend the next ten years suffering inconvenience and heartbreak gaining the experience that I have or, if you are smart, you will ask me. Within one year we can work through practical examples of every aspect of keeping the yew as bonsai and you will have compressed the process by 9 years and be able to go from there.
In learning anything it is safe to say that our knowledge rises quickly in the initial stages but there comes a point at which the process slows down and we have to work harder for each little gem of knowledge. Learning is a process of combining and re-combining what we know in order to produce greater results, no single factoid stands alone and no technique stands above any other, like the best Scotch whiskey who’s basic ingredients combine to produce layers of flavourful experience such that the ultimate result is greater than simple mathematics might suggest. Likewise a great bonsai is the result of many years of combining simple techniques that produces a result greater that the sum of all the parts. In learning bonsai there comes a time when we have a great many parts of the equation readily to hand but, just like that whiskey, we must continue to combine and re-combine our ingredients with ever increasing skill because one day we might just make an unexpected turn in the road that will lead to greatness, or, at the very least great improvement.

There is an odd notion that I have encountered in British bonsai that is not particularly evident elsewhere in Europe. Put simply it goes that buying a ‘finished’ bonsai tree is cheating. We Brits are by and large suckers for a lost cause and in bonsai seem to delight in taking the worst possible tree and hope by enduring a lifetime of grinding servitude to produce a truly “great” bonsai. In my opinion and experience this is a flawed approach. As I have already stated a bonsai is the result of many years of work. More folk are lost to bonsai through frustration at a lack of progress than any other single factor. Mis-information is rife within bonsai and kills the hobby stone dead for vast swathes of the population. Example? Almost everyone who is new to bonsai thinks that we start our trees from seeds or cuttings. We were exhibiting at the Royal Norfolk show recently and had a selection of small Chinese elms for sale. It was amazing how many people thought that we took these little trees and grew them, over time into the majestic specimens that graced our display. Starting bonsai from seeds or cuttings will take somewhere between a quarter to half of a normal life time to achieve. Starting with very good collected material assuming that you already know what you are doing will take at the very least ten years.
Lets analyse this situation a little more closely. Based on my experience and that of friends and students leads me to think that we are approaching bonsai the wrong way. I came to bonsai in my late twenties. For the first two years my only input was from books, next came time with a bonsai club, then I began collecting wild trees. For the first seven years I was pulling my hair out and my collection was the butt of many an unkind jibes from so-called friends. Several workshops with well meaning but poor quality teachers had put me on the endangered species list and everything was going horribly wrong until I met a good and inspiring teacher who put me back on my feet, instilled a sense of excitement and showed me what was possible with bonsai.

My first 10 years were all but wasted. Going into my second decade I have at my disposal a great deal of experience but am saddled with relatively poor and immature trees and raw material upon which to practice my art. Which, once again, is frustrating. My solution is to buy good material upon which to work.

Collecting wild trees is a necessary part of bonsai but it will take years just to make a root system and just as many to grow branches etc’. I am of the opinion that it takes ten years of well informed work to make a passable bonsai and 20 years of similarly good work to make a ‘real’ bonsai. We are all on this journey and it is a very rewarding one indeed but I am already forty years of age. Another twenty years will see me on the verge of drawing a pension and twenty beyond that ….? Having come to bonsai at a fairly young age I may, if I work hard, be able to see three generations of mature bonsai develop at my hand. I know this process is a rolling one but what I am trying to say it that we don’t have much time!
If we can compress the learning process in the way we have already considered, why can we not compress the time it takes to develop a tree. Going back to where I started, my friend was frustrated at his lack of progress – too many sticks in pots – most of which end up in a club auction. The net result of this approach is very little. As beginners we spend time and money gathering up cheap but poor material and in our inexperienced hands it gets worse over time before, in frustration we take it to a club auction where it is sold to more in-experienced members to begin the process over again. Ultimately we can end up disappointed, frustrated and out of pocket and still no bonsai!

We need to approach this in a different way. It is possible to compress the timescale in bonsai by buying good imported stock. We all know there is no such thing as a finished tree right? The Japanese and many others have spent generations growing trees for use in bonsai. The material that arrives in this country every spring offers us great scope for creativity. Just because a tree comes from Japan does not mean it is ‘finished’. Most of what comes here is in fact, by Japanese definition, raw material. In buying an imported tree what do we get? A trunk, a good root system and varying levels of branching but best of all we get a species of tree that is eminently suitable for bonsai. I dispute the notion that you can collect raw material from the woods.

If we go out and dig a wild tree what do we generally get? Think about this carefully…. A TRUNK and that’s it. Perhaps we get a little root and a couple of branch stubs. Several years after collection, assuming you perform the right work on the tree you may have raw material. Consider the cost of collecting GOOD trees. Research to find a good site – this can take years. Travelling which must include many fruitless trips. The trouble involved in gaining permission. Then the time and effort involved to collect the trees, pot them, keep them alive and the subsequent years of patient waiting for the material to develop all ads up, considering the losses that occur that ‘free’ tree begins to look a little costly.

Alternatively for the sake of perhaps ten hours overtime you can cut out all of that uncertainty and get to work on good material that is grown for the purpose that offers huge creative possibilities in amongst its dense branching and lovely trunk. Include the cost of a good teacher, some wire and a new pot and the net result is a tree that is worth more than it cost that will with time become a valuable asset upon which an enthusiastic beginner can learn the ropes under expert guidance with material that will respond positively. We cut out years of ‘messing about with sticks in pots’, learn a great deal quickly and protect our investment of cash by developing a valuable bonsai. By any stretch of the imagination this adds up to a very rewarding experience and by the end of those first ten years you will have a collection of trees to be proud of. All in all this adds up to improvement in our bonsai which should be the end goal because we will never arrive at the finishing post.

The final word on this subject must go to my dad who is always keen to tell me “Son! You only ever get out what you put in.”

Graham Potter
Please note. You are free to download and use this article provided that full credit is given to the author.