I have written on more than one occasion about the principle of benign neglect as it pertains to bonsai. Because bonsai is a hands-on pastime, the beginner often becomes convinced that creating and maintaining their trees is almost constant work. In fact, aside from daily watering and checking for any pest or disease issues, bonsai is a lot less doing than you might think.
I wrote a blog about the species Roughleaf dogwood, Cornus drummondii, earlier this year. I’ve worked with dogwoods on a limited basis over the past 25+ years; this occasion has really opened my eyes to a fine native species for bonsai.
I collected this specimen on the same day as the one in my blog post. I think you can readily see the potential – great old bark on the trunk, nice taper and movement, and there’s even a bonus natural shari thrown in. This tree, along with the other one that had been growing nearby, apparently had suffered the fate of many trees growing alongside a highway. The occasional weed control project, perhaps, with bush knife or some tractor-mounted horror. Maybe someone parking too close and scraping the lower trunk. It’s not hard to imagine, though you can’t be sure exactly what happened. As a bonsai artist, all we can say is “thanks.” So much great material comes from the good “un-intentions” of others.
This photo is from May 8th, by the way.
And lastly, today’s appearance. The roots are firm and the growth is rampant. Because dogwood wood really gets stiff once it hardens off, the tree needs an initial styling soon. Fortunately, with a good set of roots the tree won’t mind, even at this time of year.
This is another example of (mostly) benign neglect. I’ve fed this tree and watered it. Not a single leaf has been trimmed or pinched. I’ve moved it on the bench less than two feet from where I first set it. The only active thing I’ve done is to stabilize the trunk (see the photo above) using a native American pottery shard wedged against the edge of the pot. And that … is it!
The moral of the story is, your trees don’t love your attention near as much as you love giving them attention. To borrow the timeless Japanese principle, less is usually more. As you continue on your bonsai journey, this principle will get easier to apply.
Final note: I’ve included some detailed comments in the captions on the first photo above, to give you an idea of my thought process in planning the design of this tree. To be sure, there’s often more than one potential design in a tree. You as the artist get to make the final call on the raw material you start out with. For those trees I go ahead and design before posting, I try to find the best expression of the tree I can. Balance and harmony, in a mature representation of a tree in nature, are the desired end-result. This takes a good trunk line, taper and movement; well-placed branches; and finally, diligent pruning and pinching to produce foliage in scale.