The technique of creating bonsai comes down to one basic principle: making a series of decisions that guide a living tree or shrub toward becoming a miniaturized version of its normal self. This may seem obvious when you think about it, but often we have this vision of a bonsai in mind in the face of the reality of a piece of material that looks nothing like what you want it to be. In other words it looks like Point A, not Point B.

“Okay,” you may be thinking, “so how do I go about making good decisions?” This depends, of course, on where your bonsai or pre-bonsai is in its development. For example, let’s say you have a shrub you bought from a nursery or box store. It’s got lots of branches – more than you need, which is very good – and a good tapering trunk line. In such a case, your decisions come down to the following:

  • Choosing the front
  • Selecting the branches
  • Wiring the branches (and the trunk, if it needs shaping)
  • Moving the branches to the appropriate positions
  • Potting the tree (if it’s the right time)

Now all you have to do is make these decisions good ones!

I know that sounds a little simplistic, but learning sound technique is a repetition of the process of making good decisions on material in varying states of development. As you practice bonsai you get better at making these decisions.

Blackgum 1-3-15So, for the decision pathway described above here’s a good example. This blackgum was a much taller sapling that had branching up and down the trunk. In the lower half of this sapling was a bonsai-in-the-making. The decisions I made were as follows:

  • Cut the tree down to a side branch suitable for a new apex that continued the tapering from soil to crown; make sure there is a suitable set of branches
  • Find the front of the tree; often this is driven by where the branches appear on the trunk
  • Wire the side branch I cut to and direct it upward to make the new apex
  • Wire and position the branches, then trim to the appropriate shape – the planned style is a basic upright broom-form
  • Pot the tree in a suitably-sized bonsai pot

The result is quite good, don’t you think? This bonsai-in-training looks just like a tree in winter.


Hornbeam7-5-13-1Here’s a very different tree with a very different decision pathway. In 2013 it went from a nursery container to a bonsai pot. As collected, it had some mature branches that were kept for the design. I had chopped the trunk and directed a new leader for the eventual apex. Once in the bonsai pot, I let it grow well into summer. In this photo, the tree is clearly overgrown. But … that decision was the correct one for the tree at this stage of its development.






What was next for this tree? I actually had a couple of options: one, cut the tree back hard and encourage budding toward the interior; or two, let it grow out again through October. In this case, either option would work equally well. This was a mature bonsai in the making, with a trunk the size it needed to be, all the trunk character it needed, and a branch set and apex well on their way to refinement. There was no rush, in other words, nothing that had to be done at this point.

If you build a large collection, you’ll find your decisions beginning to span the collection. That complicates things, of course, but it also mitigates the temptation to overwork a small number of trees.


Water-elm-raft2-17-12-1Here’s a tree you’ve seen before. Nice natural raft, collected and put in a big training pot and then left to grow for a couple of years with literally no attention other than feeding and watering. When the time came, what was the decision pathway?

  • Pot the tree in an appropriate bonsai pot
  • Select the trunks suitable for the raft; do any preliminary trimming necessary
  • Wire the trunks and any branches needing shaping
  • Thoroughly trim, meaning work each new trunk to the proper shape; do any additional trimming or rough carving needed
  • And finally, make sure the trunks as a group exhibit the proper balance and interplay

Water-elm-raft2-17-12-4Here’s the tree following execution of Decisions 1 and 2. Notice how each decision – each step – brings the tree closer to the desired outcome for the specific work session. Now, you can only do so much in any single session. No, let me rephrase that: you should only do so much in any single session. Newcomers to bonsai tend to be so excited over their first tree that they want to work it to masterpiece status in one go – and I mean trees that are literally seedlings with barely any branches to speak of. This is a normal and natural desire. I think we all share it. But it’s got to be overcome. Very few species will tolerate much overworking, and most end up poorer in quality when the misplaced enthusiasm ends.

Water-elm-raft2-17-12-5Here we are following Decisions 3 and 4. The trunks are wired and shaped. Everything that doesn’t look like a bonsai has been trimmed away. The trunks have a good interplay and the overall shape of the bonsai is appropriate.

And that was the end of the session for this tree at that time. I next left it alone to grow out for a while.

What sort of decision making process do you use when you work on your trees? Do you wing it, or actually plan step by step? If you’d like to share your approach, just leave a comment below.