Guess the plan #1: Maple chop?

I recently posed the following challenge to the fine folks over at /r/bonsai.

This is a tree that someone recently asked me about. I came up with 6 hypothetical chop points and photoshopped them in. The second photo shows the pot that it’s in so you can get a sense for the roots. It’s in a larger pot than is at first obvious, with a smaller white collar on top filled with soil.

So here’s the game – assume I dropped this tree on your doorstep and you had to set it up well for the growing season. Please explain how you’d proceed and why. You can choose any of the 6 chop points I drew or none, but you have to explain your thought process.

SPOILER ARLERT: If you want to take a crack at it yourself before seeing our answers, don’t scroll past the two pictures until you’ve decided what you’d do and why.

Someone online asked my opinion on what to do next with this tree.
This is the pot it’s sitting in. It’s a larger pot, with a small white collar on top filled with soil.

Answers from some folks at /r/bonsai.

So that’s where it started, and I got a wide variety of answers. Here is a selection of them:

  • “Chop on 5.” When asked why, they changed to 4 in case of die back, with 3 if you really want to be safe. Fair enough.
  • “Air layer at 2 then cut down to 5.”
  • “Air layer at 2, cut at 3 or 5. One branch as the new top, the other as first branch.” So two votes for air layer at 2.
  • “Air layer 3 when leaves harden off (grab lots of trunk). Chop 4 the following winter, left upright branch at 5 is the new leader.” I think the air layer would get in the way of this plan. Air layering at 2 would give you more room.
  • “Expose the nebari, slip-pot into a large grow box on a slate. Let it grow out this year then chop the end of next winter at 4. Use the right branch below for the new leader unless something better develops. Clean up the chop the next spring, develop branches that summer and repot the following spring into a good pot.” I like the long term thinking here.
  • “6, of course. No guts no glory.” From Jerry, my fellow moderator. This would almost certainly yield the best trunk if it worked out.

Some critique of some of the guessed plans

I’ll get into my own thoughts on specific actions I would take below, but a few important points I’d like to hit here to critique some of the suggested plans:

  • Most took the question quite literally, and just named one of the chop points. Most of the reasons were artistic, trunk-building reasons. Here’s my take on that. There’s no way in hell I’d chop this tree for artistic purposes without evaluating the roots first, and correcting any problems. Most did not mention that, and it’s important to think of the tree as a holistic system.
  • Those who called for air layering, be mindful of timing. I’m not a layering expert myself (something I plan on working on soon), but it’s my understanding that it works much, much better if the leaves are already grown in. For those saying to start the layer now, in this state, just be mindful of researching seasonal timing of activities before just diving in, and also the state of the tree you’re about to do work on. You wouldn’t want to air layer a weak tree. btw, this thread from Bonsai Nut is the best air layering guide I’ve seen to date: https://www.bonsainut.com/threads/the-science-of-air-layering.27034/
  • One other thought on air layering. Multiple people said they’d air layer at point 2. While one could certainly do this, a key reason for air layering in the first place is to start with a trunk that looks like a tree where you can immediately start working on branches. If you layered at point 2, you’d have a trunk that required years of root development just to get it to the point where it was ready for another chop to build taper. There are much faster ways to get there than this.
  • Also, someone else said they’d air layer now, and then after removing it this season, they’d chop further down the trunk later this season. If one were to do an air layer followed by a chop, my suggestion would be to let the base tree recover for a year after the air layer is complete, and see how the base tree does next season before attempting to chop further.

Evaluating the situation

Ok, so here’s my take. First, let’s start with an evaluation of what we see here.

  • It doesn’t look like it was growing particularly strongly last season. The branches it has don’t really have any ramification, and the total height of the tree is about 3 feet. There isn’t much going on past the top of the picture.
  • According to the owner, it’s been in that pot for quite some time. For a tree that’s been in that pot for a long time, there just doesn’t seem to be a lot of branch growth to show for it. This makes me think that it’s struggling or in decline.
  • The pot set up is a bit odd. I see things like that done for ground layering, but from a conversation with the tree’s owner, I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. I think it’s literally a collar filled with soil.
  • I’m extremely curious about what’s going on both underneath that white collar, and also in the pot itself. That will determine the correct path forward.
  • Given the state of the tree, the roots are definitely my number one point of focus.

My plan for the tree

So first, I’ll say that pretty much everyone’s plans were plausible, at least in the long term. However, I think most of the suggested plans would not have ended the way the person thinks, or would at least have been unnecessarily risky.

Here’s why. Like I mentioned above, this tree shows signs of struggling, and you don’t want to do massive traumatic work to a struggling tree. That’s a good way to kill the tree or have your plan fail.

Here’s where I’d go with it. My plan would be to first set the tree up for success.

First, I’d need to see what’s under that white collar. There are a few possibilities here:

  • 1) If it’s full of roots, one option would be to treat it like a ground layer and saw it off right now. For me to do that on a tree of unknown health, the root system inside that collar would have to be spectacular. The current top of the tree doesn’t make me think that’s the case.
  • 2) If it’s devoid of roots, I’d probably remove it and all that soil in order to get a view of where the actual root line is. Then I’d plan my next moves. There are two likely scenarios in this case – either you’d find something particularly interesting to chop back to, or you’d find a great spot that was particularly interesting to ground layer and build a new set of roots.
  • 3) If it were somewhere in between, and I liked what the roots were doing so far, I might re-set the system to continue encouraging roots in that location. But if there was something more interesting below the upper root line, I might just cut them all off and rely on the root system in the lower, larger pot.

So what to do next is a big fat “It depends”. But in each case, I’d be far more likely to want to get a strong root system going at my desired trunk line.

I’d want to get this growing strongly before any big chops.

Here’s what I ideally like my root systems to look like (dense and full of roots):

Here’s what I like to see with raw stock. Tree in the middle of the pot, surrounded by a dense root ball.
The roots were so dense I needed a saw to cut through them,
The remaining root ball is dense and full of feeder roots.
I did a little more clean up with a root rake to prep the root ball for the training pot.
I like to go from a nursery pot to a large training pot, and let the tree run at this scale for a while. It will be in this pot for at least a few years while I refine the major branches.

Now, to map this onto the maple scenario. Before doing any major work on the maple, I’d at least want the root ball in a similar state to how this birch looked before I repotted it. And if I didn’t do it then, I’d want it to be in the state that the birch will be in 2-3 years after recovering from the re-potting work shown here. That might even be preferable given how root bound this one was.

In either case, I’d want to be working from a known good root system that was generating strong growth each season.

So big picture,

  • Get the roots squared away, find your desired soil line.
  • Build a solid root system below that. Build a strong root ball. Do whatever is necessary to get you there, probably 2-3 years of development time.
  • If a big chop is needed at that point, then might be a decent time to do it. I’d be inclined to pick the lowest rational point for the chop. Either point 6 on the diagram, or maybe even lower depending on what’s under that white collar.
  • I’d keep it in a grow box or decent size training pot when doing the chop.
  • Re-build the trunk from there. I’d keep it in a training pot or grow box for most of this process, probably 8-10 years with some light re-pots along the way.
  • In this way, you can safely guide the tree towards the desired result rather than just try and brute force it. It’s could easily take 10-15 years of work to get this into decent shape and heading towards a bonsai pot, but it could potentially be quite good pre-bonsai material at that point.

And one last point. When doing the root work, I may very well cut back to point 1 on the original diagram. That’s up high enough that it’s extremely unlikely to affect the tree, but sets the scale nicely so the tree redirects growth to areas that are more interesting than wasting time on things we absolutely do not need.

The reason I’d choose point 1 is because I’d want every single other little branch in that picture to contribute to the recovery of the root ball. Cutting back much further than that would probably be counter-productive at this point.

Please let me know if you like this format. I enjoyed the process of writing this one, and am likely to do a series of these.

My Rules of Bonsai

This post probably isn’t about what you think it’s about. A lot of people get hung up on the traditional rules of bonsai, as practiced by the Japanese, and as documented by countless books and online resources. Things like number of branches, location of branches, height:width ratios, etc, etc, etc.

This stuff is very well documented, and strictly adhered to in certain circles. All I’ll say about those kinds of rules for now is that unless you’re participating in a contest or a show where you know you’ll be judged by those guidelines, they really just don’t matter that much.

They’re great guidelines, and you’ll get decent trees if you follow them, but for any given stylistic rule there are bound to be many exceptions. And oddly, it’s often the exceptions that make for the exceptional trees.

So I take the traditional rules with a grain of salt.

Development first, art second

This post covers my own rules for developing natural-looking bonsai that I’ve observed and uncovered over decades of working on trees, studying them in nature, and working with various bonsai artists.

These are my words to describe these things, and my specific set of priorities, but I didn’t necessarily make all of these things up. A lot of these are core bonsai wisdoms that I’ve inherited and collected from other teachers and sources along the way, some of which you’re bound to recognize.

But I’ve been practicing them long enough that I can safely say that this is my list now. This, in a nutshell, is how I work my trees.

So without further ado, here are my rules:

Rule #1: Don’t kill your tree. No matter what, the ultimate goal must be to keep the tree alive. Bonsai artist Guy Guidry has a funny saying, “Live donkey better than dead Doctor.” I took a workshop with him about 10 years ago, and he said it more times than I can count.

The lesson I derived from that is that it’s better to live and fight another day if you’re in doubt about what you’re about to do. Sometimes waiting a few seasons to build strength is simply the better move. Make bold, but horticulturally sound moves when you work your trees.

Incidentally, it was Guy who encouraged me to take this tree:

And do this to it:

Here’s what that tree looks like today (needs some styling, but it’s a much better tree than it was):

Rule #2: Horticulture first. Always take good horticultural practices into account when doing your work. Work within the seasonal cycles of the tree that you’re working on. Do bonsai work on strong trees only! Oh, and by the way, defoliation should be rare. I see way too many people defoliate for no good reason whatsoever, just because they saw somebody do it in a youtube video.

Corollary: Understand thy specimen. Know the species you are working with and learn it’s quirks. For example, treat a birch like a maple and it will punish you harshly. Here’s an example:

The work I did to the branch that became this scar was normal by maple standards. The branch was quite tall and established, and it just died straight back to the trunk.

Rule #3: Think long term. It’s cool to see how much work you can efficiently manage within one season, but keep in mind that the tree is in no rush and neither should you be. Set your sights on a 5-10 year goal, and take actions that support the long-term plan.

Too often, people sacrifice long-term goals for the short term satisfaction of having something mediocre and under-developed in a bonsai pot. There’s an entire retail bonsai industry that sells such trees by the tens of thousands every year.

They look like this:

Mass-produced juniper bonsai

And this:

Mass-produced ginseng ficus bonsai

Like I said in an earlier post, nothing wrong with getting started with these. But if you want to have better trees, and if you want to take your skills to the next level, think longer term.

Rule #4: Cultivate possibilities. Keep your options open for as long as possible. You can very frequently wait just a little bit longer for any given action. Don’t be too quick to cut. You can’t un-prune. Leave extra branches in place until you truly don’t need them, or until they’re about to cause an artistic problem for you. And even then, it is often still a good idea to shorten rather than remove, just in case.

Leaving yourself options does two things. 1) It leaves more growth which contributes to a healthy tree, and 2) It leaves you with fall-back plans if something doesn’t work out.

Rule #5: One major insult per season. Some trees are more sensitive to this than others, but it’s a good general rule. Violating this rule often ends up violating both rules 1 and 2. If you do harsh root work, you probably want to really take it easy on the branches, or leave them alone entirely. If you do a big chop, you probably want to leave the roots alone that year.

Corollary: you can often get away with 2-3 minor insults per season. If you work light, you can definitely do light root work and light branch work in the same season.

Rule #6: Roots & trunk first. Here is the rough order of priorities when working on your trees: trunk & roots, major branches, minor branches, detailed ramification & leaf reduction. It’s OK to work on more than one at once, but if you’re working on leaf reduction and don’t even have your trunk and roots figured out, you’re probably wasting years of time.

If you have a boring trunk that you know needs fixing, you’ll want to address that sooner rather than later so that the healing process can begin. If the roots are in no shape to support the kind of trunk work you need to do, then fix that first. Roots are the foundation of everything. The quality of your tree is reflected in the quality of your roots.

Don’t do harsh work on weak trees!

Rule #8: Growth is good. Many people over-constrain their trees, especially when it comes to pot size and pruning. Trees must grow each year or they will lose vigor. Too many seasons of that, and they can easily tip towards a death spiral with the slightest mishap.

Also, growth == development and growth == strength. If your trees are growing, they’re providing you with more material to work on for next season, and they will be that much stronger when you make the big moves. Not to mention, growth adds wood to the tree which will improve your trunk long-term.

Rule #9 Constrain appropriately for your goals. I see a lot of sticks in bonsai pots, and I see a lot of people over-work their trees. Constraint is a necessary part of the art of bonsai, but it needs to be practiced in some moderation. Have a long term plan, and try to balance constraint and growth in order to get there. After major work, allow sufficient growing time to ensure a full recovery.

Rule #10: Make your trees look like trees. This is my only subjective, art-based rule on the list. I try to make my bonsai trees look like actual trees that could occur in nature. Doesn’t have to be a specific tree, but any feature I incorporate onto my tree needs to be something that could plausibly happen at full scale in a natural setting.

I don’t get too hung up on making sure that a given species perfectly matches what that species does in nature … I just want to know that some tree could do what mine is doing. So no loop the loops, keep S curve trunks to a minimum, etc.

In other words, I like to make the tree look like a miniature version of a full-scale tree. For me, ultimately, that’s what bonsai is all about.

Final thoughts

I’m open to the possibility that I’ve ruffled a few feathers here. It seems to happen anytime anyone brings up the word “Rules” around bonsai people, and discussions of the Japanese rules in particular do tend to be controversial sometimes.

Like I said above, I’m not opposed to the Japanese rules, and I do use them as guidelines, I’m just not married to them. They really are, for me, just guidelines.

This list contains my personal rules that I personally follow when working on my own trees. I think they work well, so I’m sharing them in hopes that others might learn from them, but if you want to follow some other way of doing things, have at it.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat.

An Art of Constraint: Part 3

In part two, we discussed three main types of constraints that we use to develop bonsai. In part three we will begin to dive into the choices we make when applying those constraints. This is necessarily high level – an entire book could be written on this very topic. I will later follow up with examples from my own trees in other posts.

Understand your variables – the devil’s in the details

Like making a good shot of espresso, there are many variables that come into play when developing bonsai that might not be initially obvious.

With espresso, some of the things that matter are the way you roast the beans, the way you grind the beans, the way you tamp down the coffee in the portafilter, the temperature of the brewing water, and even the temperature of the cup you put the espresso in. Juggling it all to get the perfect shot of espresso is a definite skill.

If you make an espresso without understanding how each of those variables changes things, you’ll likely get a mediocre cup of coffee. Similarly, applying bonsai techniques haphazardly without a strategy and without understanding how each of the constraints you employ affects development may get you nothing but ugly, under-developed trees.

Creative application of constraints
In the last post we discussed constraints. When you constrain a tree, it has to adapt if it is going to survive. When roots are cut or restricted, the tree adapts. When a branch is cut, the tree seeks to grow a new branch from another location. Some trees do this better and more predictably than others, but all trees will in some fashion try to correct for damage that has been done to them.

Each time damage occurs, and the tree heals, it leaves behind a scar of some sort, some large, some small. Those scars, when artfully created, and artfully used, can give a tremendous sense of age and weariness to a tree. They also contribute a sense of scale when done well.

Striving for scale
Back to the topic of scale. What we’re ultimately after in a good bonsai is a sense of scale. A properly developed tree with a good sense of scaled tree looks very much like a full-scale tree.

One of the key ways we achieve that is by developing good taper. A tree with good taper starts thick at the bottom and branches gradually become thinner as it moves up and outward. There’s a physiological reason why this happens with full-scale trees, and people see real trees around all the time that do this.

So it should go without saying that if you can reproduce this well in miniature form, then you are well on your way to creating a natural looking miniature tree.

But miniature trees don’t tend to do this without a little bit (let’s be honest, a lot) of help from us. They don’t know they’re being scaled down, they just react to constraints, and keep striving to become full scale trees. It’s up to us to make judicious use of constraints to artfully create a tree that works.

There are many other elements that contribute to scale that I will delve into in future posts.

Pump the brakes
Left to their own devices, trees will grow into larger trees. You could take a perfectly scaled, perfectly manicured bonsai tree, plant it in the ground, and within a season or two, all those years of development would probably be ruined or at least severely set back. So unless we have a good reason, we don’t let that happen, and we use a constraint to slow things down.

Here are some things that can directly and immediately slow down growth:

  • Pruning branches. Cutting a branch kicks off a compartmentalization and healing process. You can take a branch that if left along would double in thickness in a few weeks, and with one snip of the shears, you slow that down for months.
  • Defoliating the tree. Not something we recommend doing very often, but there is a time and place. When you defoliate, the tree is significantly weakened, and a massive back budding process is triggered. This is something you only do on very healthy trees of appropriate species.
  • Repotting. When you repot, you provide an opportunity for renewed growth, but for a time, you slow the tree down. How much you slow things down depends on how extensively you prune the roots when you re-pot. A light re-pot or slip potting to a larger pot may not slow things down much at all. Extensively pruning the roots can take a little while for the tree to recover, and it may grow slower that season.
  • Choosing a smaller pot. The size of the pot itself is a growth regulator. A tree can only grow so much in a tiny bonsai pot. Doing a heavy re-pot, with lots of root work, will most definitely slow a tree down while it recovers it’s root mass. In a year where you do significant root work, the tree may appear to be at a standstill for the season, or it may grow a bit slower than usual.

Step on the gas

Sometimes we need to lighten up on the constraints and let the tree stretch out. In fact, alternating between constraints and growth is often what makes a tree interesting to look at.

Slowing down growth is easy, but speeding it up happens mostly by loosening up on the constraints and letting the tree do it’s own thing for a while. Ultimately, if you’ve set everything up correctly, you’re at the mercy of the trees growth rate. This is where patience comes in.

Things that speed up growth & development:

  • Increasing pot size. Increasing pot size provides more room for the tree to stretch out. This, in turn, will eventually lead to faster development, provided that you actually let your tree grow.
  • Let the dominant branches run. When evaluating a tree, look for your dominant branches – those are the ones that are going to take off first. Sometimes you want that, sometimes you don’t. But if they’re at the top of a trunk line that you want to thicken up, pruning them can be extremely counter-productive.
  • Providing proper water and sunlight. If you’re not giving your tree the amount of water and sunlight it needs, it will not grow at the optimal rate. Outdoor trees generally grow way faster than indoor trees for this reason.
  • Fertilize regularly. Applying fertilizer throughout the season ensures that the plant has the nutrients it needs to maximize growth.

Parting thoughts on constraints

Each season, it’s important to evaluate your trees and decide what your development goals are for the year, with a thought towards the next 5-10. Only then should you decide what constraints to apply for the season.

A lot of people starting out can see only see what’s staring them in the face. They’ll try and put things in bonsai pots too soon, and they’ll try to make branches work as part of the design that an experienced eye sees as an obvious sacrifice branch.

When it comes down to it, you need to decide in a variety of situations if it’s time to tap the brakes, or step on the gas.

In future posts, I’ll be referring back to this series regularly, with specific examples from my own collection to demonstrate what I mean. I have examples of trees in a variety of development stages, and I’ll do my best to explain my development strategies and thought process for different situations.

Future posts will have pictures and diagrams to illustrate all these points, but I can safely say that this 3-part article sums up much of my bonsai development philosophy at a very high level. Once you learn to apply constraints effectively and judiciously, you almost can’t help but end up with nice trees over time.

An Art of Constraint: Part 2

In part one, we introduced the idea of constraints, and how they apply to bonsai. Let’s dive deeper into the types of constraints we typically use for bonsai training. There are three primary constraints that we apply as bonsai artists: the size of the pot (including the frequency and severity of repotting), how much and how often we prune, and the application of wire.

The next section will probably seems obvious to anyone who has been doing bonsai for a while, but bear with me. There’s a point to all this. How and why we choose to apply certain constraints at certain times is what makes this an interesting conversation, and is where we’re ultimately going with this. But let’s start with the constraints themselves.

Constraint #1: The Pot
Bonsai is about trees in pots, so by definition we are constraining the tree within the pot itself. This is one of the main things that keeps the tree small. Less room for roots == less room for growth. And occasionally, when the pot fills up with roots and becomes root bound, we re-pot, we trim the roots, and we freshen the soil.

A collection of fairly standard mass-produced bonsai pots

Decisions, decisions …
When we re-pot, we have a choice of how much we want to constrain, and that choice comes in the form of choosing the next pot size. Are we scaling up? Scaling down? Holding steady?

We also choose how much root work to do. We can choose to just “slip pot” into a larger container, we can do a light re-pot where we do some minor clean up on the roots but otherwise leave most of the root ball intact, or we can do extensive root work. This choice will impact how the tree grows for the current season, as well as in future years.

A light re-pot into a slightly larger pot on a portulacaria afra (mini jade)

By the way, most bonsai trees I see have been put in bonsai pots way to early. If your bonsai looks like a stick in a pot, and it’s in a bonsai pot, it will remain a stick in a pot for a very, very long time. I don’t get many things already in bonsai pots, but when I do, often my first step is to get it into a larger pot where it can stretch out.

Also, keeping a tree in a tiny pot can weaken it over time. Sometimes the best possible thing you can do for your tree is to sacrifice short term development, slip-pot the tree into a larger container, and nurse it back to health. Restrictive bonsai techniques should be applied to strong, healthy plants only. Rule #1 of bonsai: Don’t kill your tree.

Constraint #2: Pruning
Another way to constrain the tree is pruning. Pruning a tree by definition scales it down, at least a little. Pruning a tree also slows things down, and locks in the progress you’ve made on the branch so far. Branches need to extend in order to thicken, so pruning temporarily suspends that thickening process.

Boxwood nursery stock after a fairly significant pruning.

Pruning also encourages the tree to produce new growth that’s closer to the trunk, which can improve the sense of scale for the tree. Pruning to constrain the growth of the tree is the primary tool for reducing the scale of a tree over time and making it look like what we expect to see in a bonsai.

But nobody is forcing you to pick up the shears. At any given time, you can choose whether to prune or to wait. That is no small responsibility. I can spot an over-pruned bonsai a mile away. There is occasional value in pruning heavily, but when it’s done too often the health of the tree is often sacrificed, and the tree doesn’t get a chance to stretch out and grow like a natural tree would.

When working on early stage material especially, you need to let the tree itself do a lot of the work, and that work comes in the form of growth. Slowing that down prematurely slows down the process. It’s fine to do that if you have a reason, but be sure that you do in fact have a reason.

Constraint #3: Wiring
A third constraint that we use to shape our trees is wire. Wire is used to force a branch into a particular shape, and it is held there until such time as you remove it. I think of this as a constraint because you are forcing a branch to conform to a particular shape and location.

Wiring some initial motion into a larch.

Over time, as the tree grows and adds wood to the branch, the new bend is locked in, and the movement holds permanently. Wait too long, however, and the wire will bite into the branch and the branch will become damaged. A little bite is OK, but you can easily ruin a branch by leaving the wire on for too long. Ever see a tree grow into a chain link fence? It basically does that to your wire. It’s really cool that it can do that, but not usually helpful from an artistic point of view.

Guy wires being used to hold branches in place on a boxwood.

Constraints in Nature
In nature, trees have their own constraints. Amount of available water, the amount of uncontested space they can find to grow their roots, the length of the growing season, etc. Nature is not a friendly place, and trees have done a remarkable job at adapting to her cruelties.

If you cut a tree down and look at it’s rings, you can tell if a tree had a year of abundance or a year of scarcity. It’s reflected in the thickness of that year’s ring. Likewise, heavy snowfall can bend or break branches, branches die back and rot off, etc, etc. Nature leaves it’s mark on the trees over time.

Important note: there are a lot of misconceptions about bonsai out there, and one is that we constrain our trees by withholding water and fertilizer. That one is generally not true, and can be quite dangerous for the tree if you attempt to impart character in that way.

Now, sometimes nature can be a bitch, and you’ll have an extra hot day where your tree suffers, or you’ll accidentally leave your tree exposed to a colder temperature than it typically can handle, or you’ll get a huge batch of aphids or other pest that damages the tree, or some other such mishap.

Sometimes these things are happy accidents, and leave an interesting and indelible mark on your tree that adds character. Other times it kills or severely damages the tree and can ruin years of effort. So, unless you really know what you’re doing, it’s best to just water and fertilize your trees as perfectly as you know how, and accept nature’s happy accidents along the way rather than try to create them on purpose.

For the purposeful character building, let’s primarily focus on pots, pruning and wire.

Stay tuned for part three, where we discuss creative application of constraints when developing bonsai.

An Art of Constraint: Part 1

This is a three-part series on the art of constraint in bonsai. Part 2 is here, and part 3 is here.

A question of scale.
As trees grow, they gradually scale up. The tiny sapling eventually becomes the mighty oak. This isn’t anything you have to do, nature does the work for you.

Ancient Live Oak just south of College Station, Texas

But here’s where it gets fun. Most, if not all, trees and shrubs have an interesting feature built into their DNA. If they have limited space and/or resources in which to thrive, they are often able to adapt and run at a scale that accommodates the available space and resources.

Bonsai takes great advantage of this amazing capability.

Bonsai Artist Walter Pall standing next to one of his magnificent trident maples

We constrain the tree in order to create a particular effect, that of a miniature tree. Those constraints cause the tree to literally grow at a smaller scale and allow us to artfully develop it over time. But it’s not something we do all at once. It’s a series of constraints, sometimes small, sometimes large, applied over many years, along with ample periods of growth in between, that yields a beautiful bonsai.

The effects of growth and constraint.
Some of the best bonsai in the world came from a location in nature where constraints occurred naturally, and the tree gradually dwarfed itself over time. These are collected trees, which we call yamadori. But once collected, we continue to develop the tree by continuing to creatively apply constraints, and by continually balancing between growth and reduction.

Progression from yamadori to finished bonsai. This is one of Tony Tickle’s well known trees.

Old trees in nature have overcome much adversity over the years, and the story of that adversity is told through the trunk, the branches and the roots. Each year the tree tries to grow and adapt within the constraints of it’s current environment, and each year nature throws it some curve balls. By creatively applying constraints, we can simulate some of those curve balls and simulate the effects of age.

Also, on the topic of age: the actual age of the tree generally doesn’t matter so much, it’s the appearance of age that matters. Vendors often will add an age to the sales tag of a tiny tree, and those numbers are often wildly inaccurate. Don’t pay a premium for something just because someone says it’s old. It has to look old.

A tree is a system
When managed well, a bonsai tree is a carefully balanced system of roots and branches. The better you understand this system, the more effectively you will be able to work within it’s constraints to optimize your results.

First, and most important, every tree must grow or die, and allowing trees to grow increases their strength. This is a critical lesson for people just starting out. Pruning a tree weakens it. If you hard prune your tree every single year, or continuously prune it throughout the year, you weaken it over time, and if you then have a bit of bad luck (harsh winter, pest infestation, etc), it can tip the tree into a death spiral. So when we apply constraints, we typically need a period of strong growth to balance things out and keep the tree healthy.

Each leaf or needle that grows in is a little solar panel, and the trees put these out not for our amusement, but for their own survival. Left to their own devices, trees will generally try to keep getting bigger to the extent that they have resources available and room to stretch out.

A lot of the work happens where you can’t see it, under the soil. For this reason, it is critical that you maintain a strong, healthy root system. Whenever I get new trees, I usually just maintain them for that season, but the very next spring I will check out the roots and do any work I need to in order to set them up well for the next few years after that. Good roots lay the foundation for good bonsai development.

The cycle of growth
Buds extend in the spring to generate leaves and small branches. Those branches extend and thicken, and in turn, thicken the branches that they are growing on. All of this ultimately adds wood to the tree each year, and is how a tree acquires it’s rings.

Spring growth emerging from a maple

More branches == more space for leaves to grow == more solar panels == more energy for growth == more growth == bigger tree. Lather, rinse, repeat. This is obviously very high level, but this is the gist of how it works.

This cycle never ends for the entire life of the tree. Even when we keep a tree in a pot, it still follows this cycle, it just has to adapt to the space we’ve given it.

The constraints that we apply to the tree “hack” this process to yield the specific results that we want. We need to prune to maintain the scale we are looking for. The tree doesn’t know that it’s meant to be a miniature now, and it will develop full scale branches if you leave it alone for too long.

Pruning a bonsai. Photo from bonsaiempire.com.

But like I said above, you can’t just do anything. Prune too much at the wrong time and you can kill the tree. Prune repeatedly throughout a growing season to keep the tree looking perfect, and you can significantly weaken the tree. Most of my trees look a bit messy for most of the year. That’s because I let them grow most of the time, and only prune when I have a specific reason to.

Understanding how to work within the constraints that the tree itself presents, while applying your own constraints to the tree each season, is part of the collaborative effort between you and the tree.

Check out part two, where we discuss some common constraints that we apply when developing bonsai.

What is bonsai?

You’ll see a variety of definitions of bonsai online, and as a consumer, you will be inundated with cheap trees that don’t exactly reflect what we do as bonsai practitioners.

Mass Market Bonsai
For many, the definition of bonsai is simply, “tree in pot”, which is roughly the literal translation of the Japanese word. And you’ll see tens of thousands of cheap trees in pots at big box stores labeled “bonsai” that technically meet that definition. 

Things like this:

And this:

Some people argue strongly that these are not bonsai, but I don’t go that far. My thoughts on the matter are pretty similar to Will Heath’s in this widely read post on the topic.

They are a fine entry point into the hobby, and nothing wrong with owning them. You can occasionally even find some good ones, though more often than not they are grossly over-priced for what you get. It’s not all that unusual to find a $3 tree in a $2 pot being sold for $90.

Bonsai as a Process
For the more experienced practitioner, however, bonsai is usually much more than simply a tree in a pot. It is fundamentally a process by which one creates living art. And once you start looking at pictures of advanced trees made by professionals, everyone starts dreaming of things like this: 
and this:

These are well known trees, the first by Tony Tickle out of the UK, and the second by Walter Pall from Germany. Truly outstanding specimens. But how do you get from the box store imports to something like these? Now that, my friends, is a very interesting question.

My thoughts on bonsai
If you ask 20 bonsai artists, you’ll probably get 20 different answers. Here are some of my thoughts:

  • Bonsai, for me, is the art of keeping a tree in a pot at a smaller scale than it would naturally grow to in the ground. For me, making it look and act like a miniature version of a full scale tree is largely the point.
  • Bonsai is a living art. It is not static, it is not permanent. It is ever-changing, from season to season and from year to year. 
  • Bonsai is an art of reduction, and it’s an art of constraint, yet it’s also an art of growth. It doesn’t matter how good your artistic skills are if you can’t also keep the tree alive.
  • Bonsai is a process. Through years of pruning, wiring, repotting, fertilizing and watering, we slowly but surely improve our trees. It is a very slow process, and it takes decades to develop world class bonsai.

On this last point, I would add the following comment. Many people I speak to about bonsai say “I don’t have the patience for that!”

Believe me when I say that when I started, neither did I. The practice of doing bonsai itself is what built that patience over many years.

A wise bonsai friend once pointed out that the time will pass anyway. You Might as well develop some trees along the way.

A living sculpture
Above all else, bonsai for me is a living sculpture, where instead of clay or stone, the medium is living wood, and you are creating a miniature system of roots and branches that creates, at a small scale, a wonderful reflection of what happens naturally in the woods, the mountains and in our own back yard. 

It is, in fact, at the end of the day, a tree in a pot. But it is also so very, very much more. 

Here’s one of mine, a small Seiju elm:

When I got it, 4 years earlier, it looked like this:

What a difference 4 years makes. =)

Welcome to my bonsai journey.