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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *