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.