In my opinion, the pursuit of bonsai can be roughly categorized along two lines:
- One is the “any old tree in a shallow pot that’s been trimmed up” approach to the hobby (I emphasize the word hobby to make the distinction between this concept and true art, which we should be pursuing). This is, for lack of a better term, the “commercial” bonsai industry. If your bonsai comes from one of the huge retail purveyors of ornamental plants (who shall go unnamed so as not to get me into trouble), or from the roadside vendor in the ubiquitous white van, then you’ve got one of the “undesigned” “bonsai” we’ve all encountered at one time or another. They can’t help but look sorta kinda like real trees, but on closer examination and by comparison with real bonsai you come to understand the difference – though when first starting out, you may not know why.
- The second line of pursuit is, frankly, the only one I care about. Bonsai, done properly, is high art. It’s my opinion that even the rookie can achieve some level of artistic success in bonsai by simply learning and practicing proper technique. This has been my own approach through the years, and I’m often pleased with my results. But more so than that, I have a deep desire to get to a presentable bonsai in the shortest time possible. What’s more, I really enjoy helping others do exactly the same thing. So I’ve devoted quite a bit of time on this site in trying to convey what I’ve learned through the years that can help you get to your own goal as quickly as possible.
To that end, I want to show you just how possible it is to begin with pretty nondescript material and actually create a presentable bonsai in as little as a single year.
Here’s a young hackberry, Celtis laevigata, that I thought had a nice tapering trunk when I got it. Pictured in January of this year, there’s really not much more to it except for a few branches. But if you strain just a little and use your imagination, there might just be a tree there … some day.
(Of course, you may be thinking, “You gotta be kidding!” and I wouldn’t blame you.)
The tree came out in April, and I decided it would look good in this nice Chuck Iker round. Of course, it still takes a great deal of vision (experience?) to see a bonsai in this potted up material. What makes the difference is that I actually have a design plan. I know that given the size of the trunk and height of the tree, I have to pay particular attention to perspective and proportion. Because this is a slender tree with a not-so-fat trunk, I have to maintain careful control of the silhouette. If I don’t, it’s just going to look like an immature sapling. Remember, I want it to look as old as possible.
Here’s the tree just over two weeks later. While there’s more growth on it, there’s not that much more “bonsai” in it. The gulf between potential and bonsai is simply too great at this point.
So, what to do? That was really easy, and it’s a lesson I try to teach all of my students. When you run out of stuff to do to your bonsai that makes it better, stop doing stuff to it! There really is nothing like benign neglect in bonsai, once you’ve learned how to practice it. That means you don’t get to ignore your trees for an entire growing season, it just means learning how to know when to put a tree aside and let it alone for weeks or months. To be sure, you’ll monitor all of your trees daily during the season. You’ll water daily. You’ll feed as often as called for, depending on your choice of fertilizer. You’ll weed the pots. You’ll trim, pinch or shear from time to time. But there will be long stretches where you must leave each of your trees alone once the watering is done.
Between late April and late August, I did nothing to this tree besides watering it each day (the lazy man’s way – my automatic watering system did the work for me). It sat in a semi-shady spot, growing however it was willing to grow. I diligently avoided dragging it out of its hiding spot and imposing more “work” on it. It just wasn’t time.
Today I took a peek behind the other bonsai that was hiding it, and what do you know? This tree has really done its thing in the 2015 growing season. In fact, I think I’m safe in saying this fairly common piece of material has actually become a presentable bonsai all in a single year. A little wiring and trimming today was all I had to do.
To be sure, not every piece of material you work on will be quite so cooperative. But you may be surprised at how good you get in making this sort of result happen in short order, with just a little practice.