If you develop bonsai from the most basic level, meaning either from the field-grown tree or a collected specimen, there’s usually a plan of some sort that presents itself from the start. Usually your idea goes about the way you think it will, but just as we’ve seen recently in my lemonade posts it sometimes most definitely doesn’t. So what to do when this happens? I want to share with you an approach to making your plan fit reality.

liveoak10-30-16-1This Live oak, Quercus virginiana, is a good example of how the plan can go awry from the start. This tree was collected in Winter 2016. The trunk base is 4″. With the rule of thumb being to chop a trunk or branch at 2-3 basal diameters in order to build taper, I chopped this one at about 8″. It was supposed to bud very near the chop; however, it had another idea and decided to bud about half-way between the soil and the chop.

“No problem,” I thought. “I’ll just start building taper a little lower.” Then one day I was checking my trees and noticed that the nice new tender shoot (the higher of the two you can see in the photo – the important one) had been bent downward and partially separated from the trunk at its base. It looked like a bird had landed on it – a fat bird, I might add. I didn’t touch the shoot, for fear of finishing it off. But I was pretty well convinced it was a goner. In a day some of the leaves had indeed wilted, but thankfully not all. I continued leaving it alone. Eventually it healed up and really took off. Plus the once-sideways shoot had made a turn toward the sky.

But still … with that now-awkward looking shoot jutting straight out of the side of this otherwise neat live oak trunk, how could I make it look like something worthwhile? Was it even worth trying?

This is where you can add a great design tool to your toolbox, and make a plan that fits reality. That tool is drawing.

*Shudder* right? Yes, yes, I know you can’t draw a straight line. Fortunately, the only straight lines in bonsai are on rectangular pots and the occasional formal upright specimen. But seriously, with a little practice you can learn enough to really help your bonsai planning. Sit down with a book or magazine, or if you have access to some nice bonsai use them for models and start drawing. Practice may not make perfect, but it should make for a decent plan. Here’s how I see this live oak turning out:

liveoak11-4-16-2What’s great about this drawing is that it provides me with a road map. I don’t have to try and imagine what to do next. I know I have to carve the lower trunk. I know how much I have to carve the lower trunk. I know how thick the new leader needs to be. I know where to put curves in the trunk. And I know where to put branches.

Might the design change as the tree develops? Absolutely. But the good news is, if the tree (or I) decides to go in a different direction from the original plan, all I have to do is make another drawing and start following the new plan. That’s all there is to it.

I know some of you use drawings for guidance in developing bonsai. Or perhaps you’ve done a workshop with a bonsai master and he or she has made a drawing of your tree for guidance. I’d love to hear what experiences you may have had in using this tool.