I’ve worked with many students through the years, and what seems to stymie most is how to see from beginning to “end” with the particular specimen they’re working on. We select trees for certain characteristics, trunk movement and character, taper, good nebari, and so on. Except for that rare one, however, this is only the beginning. Every bonsai enthusiast has seen, either in person or in photos, stunning specimens that evoke such wonder that it can seem an impossible task to get from raw material to finished tree.

What I emphasize to my students is very straightforward: rules and techniques. It’s only the rare individual who gets to cut in line from practiced technique to art. So unless you’re a savant – I certainly was not and am not – you have to learn bonsai step by step, rule by rule, and you have to practice on, mangle and yes, kill, many trees. I do advise a guiding hand, of course, so you may want to consider taking a one-on-one class or doing a workshop. Regardless, if you want to do bonsai right you must be prepared to pay your dues one way or another.

I’ve found that one of the best ways to learn how to build a bonsai is to see how the masters do it step by step. Here’s a progression on a neat water-elm raft I collected back in 2010, taking the tree all the way through its design to the pinching and refinement/maintenance stage.

Water-elm7-25-10Here’s the tree a couple of weeks after I collected it. You can see the new shoots just beginning to push. I think you can also see the potential I saw. I just knew there was a bonsai in there somewhere!






I let the tree grow out for the next season, for two very good reasons: 1) to regain strength, and 2) I hadn’t yet figured out quite what I wanted to do with it. This didn’t mean I failed to recognize this tree as a future raft-style bonsai; rather, I wasn’t yet ready to tackle the necessary styling grunt work.

Here the tree is sitting in an old Tokoname tray I had had for 20 years. (What to do, what to do?)

Water-elm-raft2-17-12-2The first thing I figured out was the pot didn’t quite work. I had this terrific Paul Katich oval on hand, and once I matched up tree to pot the first stage of making a bonsai out of this material was done. Now, it’s important to note here that you don’t necessarily take this step first. It usually comes last, in fact. But in this case there was no harm done – I knew with complete certainty that tree matched pot.




Now the tree is in the pot – wired in, of course, to prevent movement I don’t want – and the editing process is mostly done. Compare this photo with the first two above. What had potential, but at the same time was a tangled mess of a challenge, now seems much less daunting. In fact, I was able to see “bonsai” at this point.




Next came the necessary wiring of trunk and branch. In any multiple trunk specimen, it’s vital to ensure the trunks relate to one another in a harmonious way. The basic shape of a bonsai, when considered in two dimensions, is a triangle. Look at this specimen and you can see the top two sides of the triangle I intentionally created at the pruning phase.





Here’s the new raft-style water-elm bonsai all leafed out a few months later. Does this work as a forest? You bet it does. Compare it with the raw material I started with. It isn’t always easy to see the bonsai in the tree, but with practice it gets a lot easier.







Here’s the last photo I took of this bonsai before sending it on to a client. It was taken only four months after the previous photo. You can see I’m already getting good leaf-size reduction from continuous pruning and pinching.

All in all, I’m very proud of this water-elm bonsai. It’s one of my all-time favorites.

You too can learn how to master bonsai techniques. Classes begin in late-April 2015. One-on-one sessions are $150 for 6 hours of instruction.

Workshop schedule to be announced.