Bonsai Study Group Forum

General Category => General Bonsai Discussion => Topic started by: bwaynef on October 23, 2012, 10:40 AM

Title: A common adage analyzed
Post by: bwaynef on October 23, 2012, 10:40 AM
Killing trees is your tuition for learning bonsai.

I imagine we've all heard something along those lines mentioned at a club meeting ...and its all over bonsai forums.

Another adage that is preached to the beginner is a recommendation to buy the best tree to be afforded.  This, to prevent having spent $200 on lots of nursery stock (that'll likely be killed if the first adage is to be believed) and still not have as good a tree as could've been bought outright to begin with.  Novices tend to be reluctant to spend that kind of money on a single purchase tending to believe they'll likely kill that tree while learning.  Essentially, these 2 adages are at odds if not outright contradictory.

I'll only speak for myself, but the most intimidating procedure when starting out had to have been repotting.  I suspect I'm not the only one who met with some trepidation the first time I had a tree upside down with pruners in my hand.  I suspect also that much of the "tuition" paid by novices is done so while repotting.

One of the other aspects of bonsai that seemed difficult to learn at first was that the trees needed to be watered when they needed watering ...and that my schedule would have to be bent to accommodate theirs .  This mostly because I had trees in poor soil, or at least, not completely in good soil.

Purposely-grown bonsai material should already have alleviated much of the hassles mentioned above by having proper root structure in place, surrounded by soil that drains well.  This will keep repottings from being NEARLY as tricky as it would be when dealing with untamed nursery stock.  No more (or much reduced) drastic root pruning on a sparse rootball.  And watering is simplified because the soil its in, by draining well, should prevent root rot issues that so often lead to the demise of our trees despite our best intentions.

Maybe if we do a better job of explaining WHY $200 isn't too much for a beginner material, and exactly how much ahead of the curve they'd be, we'll see beginners with better trees, having better luck with those trees, and sticking around long enough to catch the "bug" that fosters a lifelong bonsai interest.  In addition we'll change some of the culture where novices are urged away from buying pre-bonsai towards nursery material and subtly instilling in them a do-it-yourself culture that isn't exactly progressing bonsai artistry or the bonsai industry that I think we'd all like to see take off.  (After seeing what it is SUPPOSED to look like/feel like/react like, it will be easier to manipulate nursery material into what it should be.)

Title: Re: A common adage analyzed
Post by: sekibonsai on October 23, 2012, 12:05 PM
I agree wholeheartedly. 

This second adage is something that I preach constantly much to the consternation of the COBs in my club.  While their usual comebacks are "I get intense enjoyment out of making my 0.99 cent death row save look <almost> like a bonsai" and "I'm not aspiring to have really great trees... it my art.. just for me..." 

Yes you will kill trees, both at the start and along the way.  There are so many things to learn- horticulture, development, styling, refinement, show preparation, presentation...

Each of these skills demand a certain level of material. SO maybe you don't want to learn repotting on a $500 Black Pine <but then again you might just learn what a properly managed root system looks like>...  and by the same token you can't learn fine ramification techniques and show prep on $5 Box Store black pine... But at some point in this hobby you have to look at the time balance, assuming you want really great looking trees.

Few realize that as a nursery it takes 20 years to develop a really exceptional piece of stock out of 100-1000 so-so pieces starting out... I remember Brent W. saying such 10-15 years ago when I engaged him in on-line discussions.  Despite that, I guess I'm about a quarter to a halfway there.

I've posed this thought before on my FB page...  IMO "bonsaists" spend far more, if not too much, time on what is properly called stock development rather than bonsai skills.  Leave that to the "growers" and develpo what seems to be severely lacking- high level development and refinement techniques.
Title: Re: A common adage analyzed
Post by: coh on October 23, 2012, 12:50 PM
I don't know...I'm a relative beginner, 2.5 years into "doing" bonsai. In those 2 and a half years I've acquired all kinds of stock. Small plants from a beginners class, various kinds of standard nursery stock (usually end of season specials) and seedlings, some "good" pre-bonsai stock ($200 - $250 range), and a number of more developed trees from club members who are downsizing their collections. Many of these latter plants have interesting trunks and good nebari but some aspects have been neglected...often repotting and branch maintenance/development (usually because those members wound up with too many trees...imagine that).

Everyone is different. I enjoy all aspects of the process, including growing out seedlings and small nursery stock. Chances are not many of those plants will turn out to be great bonsai, but I find it interesting and challenging. I do have a much greater appreciation for the work involved in producing top quality pre-bonsai. It's amazing how quickly a root system, in particular, can get out of control - especially when planted in the ground. In any case, these plants can always be used in the garden or passed along to others.

I agree that repotting can be very intimidating! Especially when you've got a plant that has been neglected. I'm also finding it difficult to determine the right balance with water and fertilizer to keep trees healthy and looking good through the summer.

Title: Re: A common adage analyzed
Post by: Anthony on October 23, 2012, 06:53 PM
Normally we start the new to Bonsai on the indestructable Ficus b. and send them away for 6 months, just to see if they really like growing anything.

If one must show, when in the process of learning, we also suggest just buying 3 to 5 "finished" Bonsai and displaying those.

Additionally, encouragement is also given to the growing of up to 300 victims, just to get past the horticultural issues.

I think the drive to get high quality stock runs with the age one enters the hobby. If you start at around 16 to 18 or earlier, time has no real meaning and you take your time to learn.
Health of tree and then design.
I noticed that folk starting after 30 to 45 years of age seem to be always rushing.
Title: Re: A common adage analyzed
Post by: Jay on October 23, 2012, 08:31 PM
I could not have said it better.

Title: Re: A common adage analyzed
Post by: davestree on October 24, 2012, 12:08 AM
I hear a lot of beginners say they look for trees at Home Depot or Lowe's thinking they are getting some kind of deal. Maybe they are and maybe they aren't. I myself would rather spend my money at a real bonsai nursery. You upgrade your bonsai game significantly and support growers and retailers in the industry. I think you will learn and understand a lot more about bonsai this way instead of spinning your wheels with inferior species or stock while throwing your money at big box stores.
Title: Re: A common adage analyzed
Post by: Owen Reich on October 24, 2012, 06:07 AM
I actually had this discussion with a very promising student today at Kouka-en.  He is from Mexico where even "good" stock is not good  :-\.  I killed my first tree while completing a degree in horticulture......

I feel it comes down to the goals of a person.  Some just want to enjoy a bonsai like a bouquet of flowers.  Others want to pursue an incredibly high form of self-expression and bring a piece of Nature home.  People should buy trees grown for the purpose of bonsai.  As consumers become better educated, the industry will flourish.  The hacks (crappy teachers and vendor) need to be run off IMO as they are devaluing bonsai at every turn.  I've said it on this forum and will say it again:  Americans (like me) generally speaking have a pioneering spirit which is great.  But, bonsai is not something I feel is best learned on your own.  Had I joined a club, let alone worked with a pro earlier, my trees would have progressed far faster.  I would've also saved a ton of money ($15 x 100) is a lot....  I'm preaching to the choir on a Bonsai Forum I suppose.  Research a species' needs before buying a tree.

Now, as a pro, this matter will continue to be discussed at length with people I meet.  I agree that education is essential on the front end.  A friend of mine went from newbee to president of the club in 4 years due in part to me "coaching" him through the adrenaline rush that is the first few years of bonsai addiction.  I wish someone had done that for me.

Title: Re: A common adage analyzed
Post by: Anthony on October 24, 2012, 07:44 AM

some parts of the world don't have the benefit of growing a tested tree or shrub type. In the new areas, we have to make up rules for growing / training and untimately designing. Otherwise we would all have wanna-be Chinese or Japanese tree shapes.

Everytime I collect a possible, I go through a 3 to 5 year start over period and then I have to find 10 or so typical shapes to draw images of and ultimately create a believable illusion.

Yes, I admire my trees, but as symbols of health, endurance and so on, not quite a bouqet of flowers, and I don't like to see cut flowers, such a waste.

Please if you read this - ( -

it pretty much renders the - I can't make this into a quality tree - because I can regrow anything - stump or airlayer for good or better root placement and so on.
I even got a note from a friend on how to fix the sacrifice branch scars - seen in one of your friend's blogs.

Bonsai need not cost anything - save perhaps tools.
Seeds, clay, ash glazes and .................
Title: Re: A common adage analyzed
Post by: Owen Reich on October 24, 2012, 08:15 AM
Anthony, I was referring to the American bonsai scene.  I would very much like to see photos of your work and especially the process you mentioned.  Areas like Trinidad, some parts of Mexico, Central America, and South America have a number of bonsai enthusiasts with a great desire to learn and not as many professionals available to teach them.  I am one of the people who hopes to change that.  Material availability is often an issue such as the case I mentioned in Mexico.  Collection and after-care techniques sometimes need to be developed for local species and this type of work is underway in parts of Mexico with promising results for species never used for bonsai.

Again, education of bonsai communities no matter where they are is crucial to the development of the art and bonsai industry.  Communities with challenges like yours do make things more difficult for sure.   

Title: Re: A common adage analyzed
Post by: John Kirby on October 24, 2012, 08:41 AM
i think the point that is hidden in your comment is- "If I am knowledgeable about my material and its responsiveness to the techniques to be applied and then apply the necessary techniques and put in the necessary time, I can do just about anything with the material in front of me". Absolutely true- if you put in the time, effort and use the appropriate techniques correctly.
Title: Re: A common adage analyzed
Post by: Owen Reich on October 24, 2012, 08:44 AM
I would also like to reference a blog post of mine from earlier this year encouraging people to use plants native to their region and document their results for the benefit of other enthusiasts: (

Title: Re: A common adage analyzed
Post by: augustine on October 24, 2012, 10:45 AM
Hello to All,

Here are my thoughts as a beginner.

First and foremost, do your reading, research and learning from a club if possible and FOLLOW DIRECTIONS.

Take a conservative approach until you get feet wet. If the directions say you can remove 50% of the roots, go with 25% until you have more experience. You can make your tree look nice while waiting the required number of seasons to get it into a display container.

Do the right things at the right time. Lots of info out there, this is easy to figure out.

Plant material - if you find something nice at a regular nursery, assume the root system will be extensive, and sometimes a mess, and it will take a while to get it into a bonsai container pot. Time takes time.

Plant material - beginners have good mail order sources. I have dealt with Evergreen Garden Works, International Bonsai and Meehan's Miniatures all with great satisfaction and within my budget. Of course, there are other good vendors out there. These folks will help you and answer your questions. Again, follow the directions.

The bottom line is that we have to do things in a reasonable manner, regardless of our patience level, in order to keep our plants alive and thriving. If not there will be alot of casualties.

Bonsai must be about enjoying the journey and process. Success will come with time and the correct work just like in every other endeavour. Also, it is not realistic to compare your efforts against those of the likes of Mssrs. Valavanis, Pall and other master artists. Isn't there great joy in being so close to nature and the Creator? Aren't we very fortunate to have the resources to be able to pursue this art form?

Best regards,

Title: Re: A common adage analyzed
Post by: Anthony on October 25, 2012, 05:59 AM
Morning to All,

as I take the time to get to know you [ you may have noted that I read your blog as frequently as I can ] let me introduce myself.

I was also an apprentice at a Studio in Florence for 3 years, when you want to learn about the craft of drawing and painting, Florence or Paris either one is the place to be. My heroes are Da Vinci, Titian, Raphael and more modern Rossetti, Burne-Jones and so on.
My biggest lesson learnt was whilst standing in front of a Correggio in the Uffizi, and my teacher [who is an American living for years in Italy ] said to me, ' Yeah, that's the standard you take home as your base, and then go up'. (

So to Bonsai/Penjing

Had a conversation with a friend, in school under a Samaan tree [ Samanea saman] (

my wonder, was could I keep one at home and very small. He suggested bonsai, I was about 15 and at 17 -18 tried my hand with Peter Adams's book and Kumuti by Willi Bollman.
Bollman's ideas stuck with me and a few years later through the Bonsai Farm, I got the book by Wu Yee Sun.
So I hybridised Bonsai to Penjing and kept the idea behind Kamuti.

I also visited Chase Rosade's place and his exhibition in Philadelphia, and spoke to Mr.Valavanis on the telephone, very briefly, and later since I was living in Lafayette [ 79 to 81 ] also chatted with a few in Louisiana, about Swamp Cypresses.
In Italy, I used to visit Innocenti's Bonsai place outside at Tarvanuzze, as well as the various Chinese folk importing the mud soil imports.
I grew, a Zelkova serrata, Punica granatum, Mugo pine and so on for the time in Italy, plus many other trees-chuckle.
In Philadelphia, all I grew was a Ligustrum from the backyard, in Louisiana, and a few gifts of a Buddhelia with a Malpighia p.

I am experimental by nature, probably why I oil paint, each painting is research into the unknown, as I create a world.

My attitude with Bonsai / Penjing, since I use grow and clip, from seed or small cutting or dug up sapling from our ditches, has been one of draw a design [ if I know the tree or shrub well enough ] and see if I can achieve it.
Since I knew about ground training, and I kept adding on through say Bonsai Today, and whatever I could lay my hands on, I have been content to just learn, and know that as the Chinese say, - a man has nothing to offer until he is 50 years old.
So too does a tree take at least 50 years to show experience.
With my oldest from seed/seedling, I have about 18 more years to go - chuckle

I look at Bonsai as a hobby, but I apply the design techniques from oil painting design, to my trees and as Mr.J.Kirby has so eloquently stated, that's how I show others.

I am at that stage where I try to get very large images of Japanese or Chinese work so I can see the refinement in the branchlets.

Note as paintings go, we design for the biggest shapes first, because when you walk across a room, long before you can recognize the content of a painting [ as in faces, hands, cloth patterns etc.] you will be influenced by the design.
Ditto a bonsai tree.
So biggest shape first and then negative space and as you get closer ..........

I photograph my efforts for a record of what was done at that time, not under study conditions, and thus the information probably just makes sense to me.
A camera has but one eye, and no matter what you do, the image is flat.

A bonsai grows and changes, and optimum points are hit for short periods, so as I usually say want the idea to last - take a Holograph or Hologram of the tree.

[Apologies if this reads as a boast, it is not meant to.]

* I also spent just under 2 years at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and I did Art in school from when I was 11 until
I left Junior college at 17/18. All my teachers have been Realists and some were Imaginative Realists.
Our school system is English based and a little different to the US, we do a subject for 5 years daily, Monday to Friday, and are tested on it by Cambridge or Oxford or London, for grades of A, B, and C.
That's ordinary level and then 2 more years for Advanced and an entry into, the preferred schools of Oxford. Cambridge or Harvard and Yale or MIT and so on.

I was seen as a rebel, since I went into an apprenticeship, and not the norm.

Just in case you are wondering how I might be so casual about learning. [ I was never great at spelling, apologies in advance.]

From seed [ age not sure over 15 years ?] and what I am healing. The tree heals very well and easily. Probably originally from Brazil or Malaysia our herbarium is unsure.
Now going into branchlet training.

Title: Re: A common adage analyzed
Post by: Owen Reich on October 25, 2012, 11:42 AM
I always admire bonsai enthusiasts that come into this from the "art" side.  I was of course introduced via the science side (I'm speaking very generally here).  I loved plants and nature in general first, and many of the concepts you have studied intensively I have just been exposed to recently (again generally speaking).  I'm looking forward to hitting the road next year to teach but also to learn about bonsai care all over as well as info on species I'm not familiar with.  Your tree looks kind of like and Acacia.

In America people often seem to want their bonsai "finished" yesterday and "Pre-bonsai" stock is a logical solution.   Growing from seeds and cuttings is admirable and I will do that stuff too as a compulsive propagator.  One thing to consider is I'm approaching this as a well-meaning professional whose primary goal is to help clients achieve goals and increase their  ;D frequency and not as a hobbyist. 

Getting back to the topic of education, when Bjorn started talking about a YouTube series, I was really excited.  Video brings so much to the table in regards to teaching in 3D.  I didn't write a blog the first year over here as it seemed redundant with such a powerful teaching tool as The Bonsai Art of Japan series.  Even the parody episode was meant to note some issues in quality we felt could be improved upon by other YouTube channels.  Lindsey Farr has a done a great service to the bonsai world; a tripod and some Valium would have done wonders for his work though  :). 
Title: Re: A common adage analyzed
Post by: Jay on October 25, 2012, 12:56 PM
This all boils down to the question.... In five years if this tree survives and is healthy, will it have progressed to a point that I am happy with, or will it still be a project. If it is still going to be a project, I will pass on obtaining the tree........
And yes, I do not feel that all trees can be brought to a point that I would be proud of in five years.

My two cents
Title: Re: A common adage analyzed
Post by: Anthony on October 25, 2012, 01:57 PM

my tree looks like an Acacia - blasphemy - ha ha ha. I will leave an image of a mature tree at the end of this response so you can see what I still have to figure out.

Hee hee as a hobbyist, one would be stuck with old ladies and old men wanting to be entertained alla workshop. I will try and make sure that does not happen to you.

A word of caution, apprentices in the Fine Art world, after the studio, are advised to go and clear their heads for 3 to 5 years. Very often they return to what they did before they went to train.
Not sure how that would work with Bonsai designs.
As the Sunset group says - Follow not in the master's footsteps, but the light that he follows.

So what would one of your trees from seed or cutting look like?

By the way, I am one of those who design so the tree looks natural, which is why I try to study many mature trees/shrubs of the type I am testing.
I am not impressed by the accidental or just poorly designed and therfore it must be natural.

My grandfather was from China, and he taught my Dad that if something is worth doing it should be done well.
My grandmother was from either Pakistan or Kashmir, and her advice was just make money.
My mum was from England and her advice was be true to your heart.
Fine Art at the level we study it is a business.

I have killed or lost many efforts, and tried to not collect anything I was not willing to really look after, so my graveyard is filled with ghosts of seeds / cuttings and a few collected saplings.

I enjoy your videos, and I like Lindsay Farr's work, I believe it is important for those in Bonsai to have some knowledge of how to make a pot and perhaps even make a few, same for soil sifting.

Time has no meaning to me and I try to pass on the idea to all, spares the trees a lot of torture, but then a good painting can also take years to complete.
Title: Re: A common adage analyzed
Post by: Anthony on October 25, 2012, 02:00 PM

10 years is probably a more sensible figure or even 15 / 20 if it is pine type.

BUT Bonsai never stop changing and designs peak, then often fail and you have to re-evaluate.
Title: Re: A common adage analyzed
Post by: Owen Reich on October 25, 2012, 11:47 PM
I'm going to start a different thread about bonsai from propagated material. 

I was referring to the compound foliage looking like an Acacia, not the form  :).

Title: Re: A common adage analyzed
Post by: Chrisl on October 26, 2012, 11:31 AM
Interesting topic guys!  I too came in from a science based background and had always wished I was more 'artistic'.  So this journey into bonsai has been relatively easy when it come to horticulture, both the science, and from 20+ yrs of growing, potting household plants.  So repotting was never a big problem when first starting off.  It was, and still is, a lack of artistic creativity, that is my biggest stumbling block to bonsai now.  Though in the short time I've been seriously trying in this hobby, I've gotten a bit better.  But I have a long way to go, and in the end, I'm going to find the best teacher at hands to help with the 'art' of bonsai.  Just my .02 cents ;)
Title: Re: A common adage analyzed
Post by: Anthony on October 26, 2012, 12:31 PM

as far as I know that type of design/pattern information has never been written down in a book, is usually transfered by word of mouth.

However, have you tried this - (

This is the mass of the tree when seen from a distance. If you can form an attractive and interesting shape you can hold the eye.

Look also at the negative space - the space for the birds to fly through - can you create attractive shapes that harmonise with each other and ultimately the whole [ of the tree .]

As it goes, it must first engage the eye and then the mind, and hopefully contemplation will follow [ with Bonsai perhaps - memory.]

Then try this -,or.r_gc.r_pw.r_qf.&fp=d8bd166e9ee6755b&bpcl=35466521&biw=1093&bih=483 (,or.r_gc.r_pw.r_qf.&fp=d8bd166e9ee6755b&bpcl=35466521&biw=1093&bih=483)

Outline - the bones of your tree , the first 6 branches and then the branchlets added on.

Apologies is I am speaking Fine Art jargon and I have lost you. Feel free to ask.