I’ve been posting frequently since winter began, but so far I haven’t spent any time writing about the activities vital to the pursuit of bonsai that can be done before the first buds swell. To be sure, those of you in the frozen parts of the country may be staring at snowbound trees on a daily basis, or perhaps the crowd of trees huddled in your garage for their own good until temperatures begin rising. Regardless, there’s really not a time of year when you can’t find something to do to advance your knowledge of bonsai or the individual trees themselves. Here are the things I’m doing right now:

1. Collecting material for 2015 (and beyond)

What’s always been true of bonsai for me is the “flow” of trees into and out of my possession. I love collecting trees, and I love field-growing trees. What I’ve learned about myself over the course of my bonsai career is that my talent lies primarily along this path:

  • Selecting the basic characteristics of the tree form when collecting/growing material – this is usually just seeing the line of the trunk/trunks from base to future apex, which includes character, movement and taper
  • Styling the raw material from the “stick and shoot” stage to the tertiary ramification stage
  • Creating the artistic composition of tree plus pot, for those specimens I decide to place in bonsai pots

My trees tend to go on to their intended homes by this point in their development. It’s the rare tree that I feel compelled to keep for more than a few years. This doesn’t mean the others aren’t great trees, but I’m very excited about and good at getting them to that point where the art in them is emerging.

Here’s the point of all this: I’ve always figured that the more trees I worked on, the more I’d learn and the better I’d be at bonsai. With over 25 years in the hobby now, I know this to be true and so it’s been a good strategy for me. As you know, I always recommend to everyone that they work on as many trees as possible – with appropriate guidance, of course – because practice makes perfect. Like those musical scales I wrote about the other day.

You may not have the desire or the ability to collect your own material for bonsai. If so, winter is a good time to begin planning purchases for the new year. What species interest you? Is there a new one you’ve been dying to try? Are you ready to upgrade in size, or add a larger specimen? Or just add to your collection? Either way, if you have the room to add more trees it’s almost a sure bet you will. It’s just what we do.

2. Working on leafless deciduous trees


A nice little Mayhaw I lost back in 2012; was going to be a beauty.

There are two ideal times to work on the structure of deciduous trees: when they are at the “stick and shoot” stage, and during winter when there are no leaves to obscure your ability to see right through them. The appearance of any bonsai is a result of form, proportion and balance, among other factors of course. What is commonly done with deciduous bonsai is to grow them like stylized bushes with tree-like silhouettes. While this can certainly look okay, in my opinion it fails to produce the three-dimensional appearance of “tree-ness” vital to the best of deciduous specimens. To do this requires a strong vision of and dedication to the tree’s superstructure. This is not just the trunk, though the trunk is a key element. It’s also about how the branches are built, where they reside along the trunk, their angle of repose, and how they move as individual elements of the composition; what positive and negative spaces they form; the detailed structure of each branch – their “fractal” structure, if you will; and lastly, that whole of the tree which is greater than the sum of its parts.

To build the structure of your branches properly is a multi-step, multi-year process. It can be done adequately in as little as three years; more is always better, barring issues with the health of the tree or a failure to repot timely. There’s also the size of the tree to take into account. The larger the tree, the longer it takes to properly build the structure of each branch while getting it to the right size relative to the trunk size. The American hornbeam below is a prime example; it’s just entering its sixth year of training. The trunk measures 6″ above the root crown and is about 36″ tall. I have another four or five years to go to make it look right.


This one was repotted in 2013, so it’s time once again.

3. Repotting of certain trees

A perennial question about any given species grown as bonsai is, “When should I repot it?” My basic approach is, if I can collect it now I should be able to repot it now. There’s another element I also like to take into account, and that is the hardiness of the species. Take American hornbeam again as as example. This species ranges, in the Eastern U.S., from the Deep South all the way to Canada. Do you think I should worry about the root zone if I repot now? Of course, everything goes on the ground here at 15F and below, in an overabundance of caution, but I can assure you I’ve never lost an American hornbeam to cold. American elm is the same way; it ranges even farther north than hornbeam.

I’ll probably wait a little while longer to tackle this tree, but I suspect by Valentine’s Day it’ll be done.

4. Making soil

You can’t have too much prepared bonsai soil going into spring. If you do nothing else bonsai from December through March, why not make your soil? You sure don’t want to be scrounging for soil when the buds begin swelling if you have 20 trees that need repotting.

What’s a good soil mix? There are probably as many recipes as there are individuals who grow bonsai, but to my mind keep it simple is the best approach. I use Turface or Riverlite (formerly Haydite) as my inorganic component, and screened pine bark mulch for the organic. The organic is screened between 1/4″ hardware cloth and 1/16″ window screen, using my homemade sieves. I use what stays on the window screen. I also screen the fines from the Turface or Riverlite.

How particular should you be when screening out fines? For larger trees, that is, 12-48″ in height, I don’t think it’s essential. If I were dedicated to mame and shohin size bonsai, I’d wash both my inorganic and organic components. Remember, roots must breathe. The smaller the pot, the more susceptible to excess water retention, and the more water retention the more potential for suffocation of the roots. The presence of fines in a pot that’s only 1/2″ deep – meaning there’s essentially no hydraulic head to force drainage – is not a good idea.

And the recipe? I like to go with 2/3 inorganic and 1/3 organic.

The soil debate is an ongoing saga of the bonsai world, and it always will be. My advice is always to try different components and compositions and see what works best for you. Our “micro-climates” are all a little different. Some of us have more sun than others, some are in drier areas, some have automatic watering systems and others do all of theirs by hand.

5. Studying bonsai

Bonsai is a visual art, and everyone comes to the art because they saw a bonsai. You need to study as many photos of great bonsai as you can. I think there are some pretty good examples here at Bonsai South. But also go to the library and you should find some good sources on the shelves in the gardening section. Study the types of trees, their forms and styles, how they make your eyes move and keep on moving as you observe the tree. You’ll see drama, tension, grace, stability, proportion. You’ll see what your mind is telling you is a real, large tree out in nature, but it’s a small tree in a shallow pot. Most of all, your mind will be building memory patterns that you’ll use when styling and caring for your own trees. No matter what you start off with, you will have observed one or more bonsai styled along those lines. Imitate them! As it is with practicing bonsai techniques, if you imitate the style and form of great bonsai over and over again you will certainly end up creating your own great bonsai.

I have never stopped studying bonsai. You never stop learning.