Resolutions are often a way to start a new year, and as we are already in the tail end of the first quarter of 2023, I post this question: What are your ambitions for your bonsai collection, and are you serious about improving your skills and what do you need to make your bonsai even better?
While thinking about my personal bonsai goals for 2023, I realised that I have an opportunity to inspire fellow enthusiasts to advance their own bonsai game. Of course, everyone’s bonsai story is unique, and it is imperative that you remain true to yourself as you are the artist of your own tree.
- QUALITY NOT QUANTITY
There are benefits to gather and grow many trees of various species when you first begin to develop your bonsai trees. This first-hand experience is invaluable for developing your own skill and approach to style and design. You will inevitably lose a branch or two or even loose the whole tree due to a faulty watering regime. Once your trees have passed the development phase, you might find that your available resources – especially time are strained.
This is the point where I found myself about 5 years ago, I was unable to meet the time required to focus on refining all my trees. So, after 30 years of cultivating, I had to make the conscious decision to start thinning my collection. This has enabled me to focus on specific trees; those with an interesting past and exciting future. Individual and more frequent attention will allow me to increase the overall quality of my smaller collection.
How many is too many? Various factors will influence the number of trees in your collection:
- Space: trees need space and take up space and the amount of real estate available to will greatly influence the number of trees you can hold.
- Free time: a busy modern lifestyle coupled with a demanding day job will eat away at the free time you have to truly enjoy and maintain a bonsai collection.
- Water availability: as water is becoming an increasingly scarce commodity in some regions of the country and we cannot always rely on rain and the collection of rainwater.
- Time of year: sometimes a tree is more desirable during autum or comes to fruition during one season in the year.
In hindsight I have realised that thinning my collection and focusing on quality trees would make my life easier and free up time and space. Currently I am in the process of selling some of my trees, especially once the tree has reached a certain stage in development. This allows someone else the gift of nurturing the tree further, and I invest the income straight back into my collection through buying quality pots, interesting and unique pots curated for specific trees that are ready for exhibition or simply to enhance the aesthetic, as illustrated below:
2. INCLUDE A QUALITY TREE FROM THE START
Years ago I was among those who were of the notion that it was somehow cheating to buy a mature, refined bonsai tree because it is better to grow from seed, cuttings or collected Yamadori from the wild. But, I soon realised that in buying a bonsai tree at an advanced stage of development, as I did with this Swamp Cypress which I bought from the late Rudi Adams in 2003, is that it allowed me to build on his experience and guidance.
Buying good quality stock or even trees at an advanced stage of development can inspire and encourage you and ultimately increase your enjoyment of bonsai as you further craft the tree.
Invest in quality stock; whether it be a field grown or collected trunk or a partially developed tree from a bonsai nursery or private grower, superior stock can do wonders not only for your enthusiasm, but it can kick start the development of your Bonsai skills.
Buying a quality bonsai may not be everyone’s an aspiration, but it does hold benefits to beginners and the larger bonsai community. One good tree in a collection can have a spin off effect that could elevate the overall standard of your trees and the trees we see at exhibitions. And better-quality tree will attract more numbers to clubs, bolstering the reputation of the “ hobby ”.
3. DEVELOP HORTICULTURAL SKILLS
We all start with great enthusiasm, and we are eager to pass the developmental stage. What many do not realise is that this process is only possible with a healthy tree.
This is a big mistake if you have not first learnt the basic requirements of a tree in a pot, because to care for a tree that is in a confined space is totally different to that in “open ground”. It comes down to a simple equation – 80% horticulture, 20% art.
I suffered such an unfortunate tragedy when I lost this Azalea through stupidity and ignorance. I acquired this bonsai n 1998 and now it is but a silent reminder in my Bonsai work area.
In my inexperience, I did not watch the soil properties. This tree was planted in a mix of peat and some other material, I did not realize the tree was pot-bound, there was no percolation whatsoever and even with regular watering, the centre was bone dry. So, a hard, and expensive lesson was learnt about soil properties and , yes, ordinary peat, if not soaked properly, is not a good idea as it repels water.
Another horticulture skill that is honed over time is timing. When is the right time to do anything on your tree? Potting, repotting, pruning, any action that would cause a big change to the tree’s equilibrium should be done at the right time.
This is a lesson you need to learn on your trees in your own environment. Each garden has its own micro-climate and the stage of of development of your trees will tell you when the right time is. The optimized schedule for gardens in the same neighbourhood can differ greatly, not to mention opposite ends of the same town or different provinces in the country.
It is true that general schedules are season dependant but guide yourself by looking at the trees in your area. Train your horticultural skills and instinct and ‘’read’’ your trees (what, when and how to use for instance Fertiliser, NPK ratios, Soil pH, CEC, Percolation, etc).
Learn to listen to those little nuances the trees are telling you.
4. TRY A NEW TECHNIQUE
Even with all the right knowledge, many of the techniques we use to develop our bonsai will not be common knowledge. If you just started bonsai, then your immediate challenge might be knowing how to prune your Chinese maple or your Juniper or to prune your Black Pine. If you’ve been growing bonsai for some time, you may never have tried certain techniques, but once implemented, you may find they greatly improve and add value to your trees.
Airlayering a common Privet . This tree had good nebari but that is all. So airlayering was used to get taper on an otherwise boring trunk. I can go on with this tree, but the trunk will never improve by itself. So, I am now working on improving the quality of the tree even if I have to sacrifice the nebari. Another option is for the nebari to become a potential second tree.
Figure 10 Airlayering Privet
Figure 11 shows a mall bonsai Ficus Ginseng which was received as a gift. However, it is an average tree with overly dominant roots. Yet, due to its sentimental value, I have invested the time for the airlayering technique to craft it into a tree more in accordance with my sentiments. So , lets try and make something out of this tree.
Another technique I find particularly enjoyable is manipulating and crafting dead wood into a realistic and natural appearing shari and jin.
Sometimes, not by choice, your vision of the tree gets change unexpectedly, as was the case when this Privet was attacked by the infamous borer beetle The result was the die off of some branches and even a section of the main trunk. To work around this problem, I needed to craft the deadwood into a more realistic and natural appearing shari and jin, and it resulted in a simplistic but more intricate appearance with interesting features. What was initially a negative experience with the beetle was turned into a positive outcome by enhancing the appearance of the tree. Now all that is left is to get a suitable flat pot that will emphasise the trunk line and the scarce foliage.
Bending thick branches or trunks to improve the design of the tree is a painstaking technique requiring patience and resilience. Of course, you can cut and remove the straight section of this Juniper and create a jin but I would rather try bend the branch fist.
Bending a thick trunk by small cuts in the main trunk, raffia, thick wires and guy wires to keep trunk line in place.
Being unique and unexpected, in my opinion is what makes Bonsai exciting. The Bonsai is always hidden in your tree, you just must see it. Here the progression of a Juniper I have worked on since year 2016 . By looking at various photos , an image will come to mind and by using wiring,bending , it has been transformed to a far more elegant, unique tree. Now the task is to improve the appearance of the foliage pads.
5. SEE THE POTENTIAL IN GARDEN YAMADORI
I am blessed with a wife who is a keen and knowledgeable gardener , and being friends with the local garden service also helped . Collecting garden Yamadori and pre-bonsai material was very accessible to me like this False Cypress many years ago.
This ‘ugly ‘stump has become my pride and joy over the past 16 years. It is big, a 4 man tree and about 1,2 meters tall and the trunk base 75 cm in a quality Tokonama pot ( expensive!).
6. TAKE MORE PHOTOS OF YOUR TREES
A progression series is a great way to keep your spirit up, to learn through setbacks and it enables you to look at how you have grown as an artist. Take more photos of your tyrees in development and even if changes seem to be insignificant , after a few months or even years , you will appreciate your hard work and you will learn from your efforts and even more so from your mistakes, and the end result can be immensely gratifying !
( courtesy to Jerry Meislik )
This Jasmine stump was removed from our garden in year 2015 . It was a sluggish transformation with the tree nearly ending in the compost heap. The lesson learnt was not to despair, take a step back and allow the tree time to tell you , which way it wishes to go.
When that vision appeared, the bonsai became a floating trophy, but I do feel that I need to change the pot , more graceful and refined and possibly a different colour. What do you think?
Another example from my collection, shown below , a Conifer / Juniper Yamadori from my wife’s garden. My vision was to create something different. With proper techniques, this Bonsai tree can imitate a natural, windswept effect. The transformation of this tree is truly remarkable, and the evolution captured in the progress photos is unbelievable. Robert Steven visiting Kat Rivier Kai a few years ago and was impressed with all the windswept trees along the coast of Cape Town. He was quite taken back that we had so few windswept style trees in our collections.
I displayed this Juniper tree at a previous Kat Rivier Kai ABF. Receiving positive feedback from the master himself felt like an immense achievement.
However, learning and honing one’s skills remains an ongoing process.
6. CREATE YOUR OWN STYLE
I was stubborn and wanted to create my own style, my own take on what Bonsai is and how I want to express myself through my trees. I wanted the viewer to recognise me as the artist behind the tree. I am chasing that dream !. During my earlier years of Bonsai, I was disappointed in the local club as there was a fixed idea of what Bonsai was with stringent adherence to the boring and dare I say outdated rules. To produce the typical cookie cutter tree without any imagination and without any appreciation of the dynamics of a living, developing tree telling a particular story . I was not afraid to go against the grain, I wanted to develop my own style without outside influence. And I believe here is where that other 20 % of artistry plays a role in achieving your goal.
Why then do some people progress so much faster than others in honing their craft?
Becoming a master at bonsai, like any other skill you might want to improve, be it a sport, dance, or to play an instrument. takes time and effort. And for some even that is not enough to garner the desired results.
I personally have been doing Bonsai for 30 years. But it is only the last few years of practicing my own skill and allowing myself to learn through a decade of experimentation and research that I can now, for the first time say I am doing Bonsai.
So, the reason why some people improve so much faster in a skill has a lot less to do with how hard they practice, and much more to do with how they practice.
It is imperative to understand that behind every accomplishment, behind every success, behind every magnificent tree, there is a process. And by understanding that process, you have more control over the outcome. Yet, most people spend most of their energy and attention on the outer game; the outline of the tree, the execution of pruning etc. Where the focus should rather be on the building blocks of a good Bonsai – a good root system, a trunk with taper, good movement, etc.
“You don’t know what you don’t know” is very true when it comes to bonsai. If you want to see progress and improvement, you need to be committed to continuously improve your practice strategy and develop you bonsai skills.
7. JOIN A CLUB AND IMPROVE YOUR SKILLS
The Internet offers a plethora of opportunities to learn and be inspired across various social media and other channels. You can watch your favorite Bonsai artist online with various courses.
While the availability of all the online information is great, it also has a downside in that bonsai enthusiasts do not feel the need to be part of a local club. This is a sad mistake as one of the many benefits of joining a club is learning from practical demonstrations. The feedback received from other growers who are exposed to similar climatic conditions, working with the same species and have access to the same materials you do ,is invaluable. Taking a tree to a meeting for feedback may also help tremendously when you need a fresh set of eyes. Sometimes the level of insights may surprise you, a newbie not burdened down by convention might just look at a tree and be able to provide you with a completely novel story to tell with it.
Being part of a club can be an immense source of inspiration and guidance.
It is true that some clubs might stifle creative spirits as the club clings to old ideas of what it means to be a bonsai. If you are in that situation, be brave and be the change you want to see. All it takes is a few creative and confident members to break this stagnation.
Being a club member and regularly attending meetings allows you to retain that spark of enthusiasm.
8. STUDY TREES AND BONSAI TREES
Through constant study of trees growing in nature I firmly believe that this imagery becomes ingrained in one’s mind and when called upon, for instance when you are styling a tree, can greatly contribute to the result in a positive way.
I would also encourage you to study images of bonsai trees. Although these images will be of trees which are essentially the artists interpretation of nature using the material, they had available, one can learn much from the work of others.
This is especially the case with a progression series of photos before, during and after styling. Progressions offer valuable insights into how the artist solved various problems and what techniques they employed at each stage.
A simple google image search for a particular species or style is one of the easiest ways to gain insight. Following progressions on YouTube or Instagram is also a great way to study trees. And of course, as mentioned above, take your own photos of your trees on a regular basis.
9. GROW YOUR BONSAI LIBRARY
There are countless books on bonsai available. Many of them contain the same basic information but there are also books dedicated to specific subjects or species. Although bonsai books are usually lovely, illustrated coffee table books, they need to be read and studies and not simply used as decoration.
Try books on specific species, particular styles, different techniques and use the vast resources available on the internet.
10 . CONSIDER THE SECURITY OF YOUR TREES
“How safe are your Bonsai?”
When you have a half decent collection of Bonsai displayed in your back garden, there are plenty of things that might keep you awake at night. Did you remembered to water them? Did you switch on the security light? Is the garden gate locked?
The specialist thief may uproot a pre-bonsai in your garden. However, a much easier target would be an expensive Bonsai which is already potted and can conveniently be lifted away. If you couple this bizarre situation where we leave expensive goods such as prized bonsai out in the open, ready to be carried away with little or no physical security protecting the entrance to the garden, then it is no wonder you can’t sleep at night. Luckily the probability of your garden being targeted is not big and with simple precautions, the odds of becoming a victim become much smaller.
The security of our precious trees must take an equal priority to all the other aspects of your care regime, especially given the many potential outlets the average Bonsai thief might utilise. It is now not uncommon for stolen trees to appear at Car Boot sales or on web-based auction sites. The nature of the latter method to “fence” Bonsai has taken on greater popularity over the past couple of years given the apparent anonymity that comes with virtual selling. If you are going to buy trees over the web, then make sure you do so from a trusted source such as a well-known website or someone who is an honest trader.
Top security tips:
- Adequate physical security is the best starting point when considering the protection of your property. If you can prevent access to the back of your house through the installation of lockable gates or high fences, then it will be worth the expense.
- Maintain hedges, gates and walls in a good state of repair and ensure that they are high enough to deter a would-be intruder.
- Don’t advertise the fact to strangers that you are an owner of expensive Bonsai trees. Be cautious about where you site and display your trees such that they can’t be seen from the street.
- Get a big, loud dog. You won’t be the most popular person on the street but at least it will deter unwanted visitors. This is not an option for me personally because a well-maintained garden and dogs do not mix.
- Invest in an infra-red motion detector security light which throws huge amounts of light onto your garden whenever someone wanders through the beams.
- Probably the most expensive option is to install a CCTV system. This might be relevant to you if your collection is outstanding, but for the average collector a lockable gate and stationary cameras are sufficient.
- Although not a preventative measure, ensure to record the ownership of your trees using photographs. This will also help if you are ever the victim of crime as you can prove your claim to your insurer and the crime itself to the police. It will also help the police to track down your trees if you can show them what they look like.
At the end of the day, you can take control and you can minimise the risks that you take in having a prized collection of Bonsai.
11. LIFE’S A GAME
I see great parallels between the world of bonsai and the game of life. In its purest form bonsai is a process we use to guide and sculpt the life force within a tree to enable it to show its true beauty to the world. Horticulturally speaking there may well be a ‘best way’ to get things done even though many other regimens will produce passable results.
It is very easy to look at a bonsai and judge the quality of the work that has been carried out upon it. The wiring, the pruning, the daily care and feeding as well as the preparation and presentation all depend upon the skill of the tree’s owner. With experience, you will be able to select the quality bonsai amongst the not so good specimens.
Many people will enjoy their bonsai for years on end without worrying about the whims of exhibitions and competition. And that is the way it should be. Looking for success in a competitive sense focuses one’s mind solely on the finished result and while we all know that a bonsai is never strictly ‘finished’ there is a point at which it reaches its best form at the hands of its maker. Once this form is achieved only time and diligent work will add beauty to the tree. After all that is the true beauty of the art; the trees just keep maturing and improving.
However, it does seem that we have missed the mark a little. Owning another show quality specimen bonsai that impresses our mates is not the goal. Owning ‘finished’ bonsai is nice for our pride and may make others a little envious but it reduces our noble art to a very materialistic level.
Mr Teruhiko Ota, one of Japan’s last surviving Khumoso monks played sakuhachi all his life. Into his late eighties he continued to play and studied diligently, forever pushing the boundaries of his own technique and skill forwards through disciplined practice and creative thinking. Mr Ota never sought or found commercial success he simply enjoyed his music and made it his life’s work to be the best that he could. Towards the end of his life he said,
” Practice for its own sake, let progress take care of itself. Do not corrupt the beauty of learning by becoming attached to an end goal”.
12. WHAT HAPPENS TO YOUR BONSAI IF YOU DIE?
This is a topic for another day.
So to conclude my aspirations for 2023:
There will come a point where we all become complacent with our collection, then after some time you see the need to change the style or design of some of your trees and even with all the answers out there, you still find yourself procrastinating.
You have two options; remain stagnant or identify what you want, find out about the process, and do the work to make it happen. Turn that desired project into reality.
The most important part of the process is getting started. Don’t feel sorry for the years that have been invested in a tree that is not going anywhere. Commit to really change your tree for the better and
Keep that forward momentum going.
Your decision, followed by real action; cutting off a problematic branch, changing the preferred view of your bonsai or changing the whole design or style, proves not only to yourself but to your fellow bonsai enthusiasts that you mean business.
New habits are formed, one at a time through ambition and striving for goals.
Welcome to my 2023!