How I See This Wonderful Bonsai Journey. How About You?

Don’t be alarmed.  I promise not to wax lousy with philosophical babble about bonsai.  But I do want to try and convey is how I see the art and pastime, and hopefully I’ll hear from you so we can compare notes.

As most of you know, I got passionately into bonsai almost 30 years ago.  I was determined to use the native species that grew where I live, figuring if they didn’t survive bonsai training it could only be my fault.  I’ve pretty much stuck with this niche since that time, and I’ve had my successes and failures.

Being in the bonsai business means I’ve had a lot of trees come into my possession and go right back out again.  Like a flowing river, I suppose.  I don’t mind; I really enjoy the business.  I love being able to provide great raw material, and designed bonsai and bonsai-in-training to clients all over.  And it’s given me a lot more trees to work on.

I figured out years ago that what I enjoy best is bonsai design, that is, taking a piece of material and creating from it a representation of a mature tree in nature.  I’ve written before about all of the factors that go into achieving this goal: proportion, composition, forced perspective, complementary elements, and so on.  Plus add to this that the subject of the artwork is alive, grows in a way that we’re intent on altering, has certain biological needs that are not fulfilled by its living in a shallow, small container, and is subject to attack by all manner of pests and diseases while we manipulate its shape to suit our vision of it.  It’s nothing short of a miracle that we can even hope for a positive outcome.

Here’s one example of this seemingly impossible mission, my big Riverflat hawthorn.  Today I gave it a light trimming to restore its silhouette and remove crossing branches.  This tree has a 3″ trunk base and is about 30″ tall, and fits the category of large bonsai.  I’ve been training it now for eight years.  I personally think it’s wonderful.  It really does look like a mature tree in nature, which of course is the goal of bonsai.





Today I also made this American elm bonsai-to-be.  The trunk base is somewhere between 3/4″ and 1″ in diameter (depending on how high it’s ultimately potted), and the tree will probably be 14″ tall when done.  This is not a large bonsai, nor is it a shohin bonsai.  It’s just one of those in-between trees that has (I’m convinced) a lot of potential down the road.  The emphasis here is on “down the road.”

But here’s the thing.  I got just as much pleasure in making this ordinary bonsai-to-be as I did in the refining trimming of my much more impressive Hawthorn bonsai.  If I hadn’t told you how small this tree is, you might have thought it was much bigger: after all, American elm leaves can get as big as 5″ long.  So size was not really a factor here.  It was all about the designing and potting of the tree, making the composition by choosing the elements of tree, pot, ground cover, and so on.  I can see art in this rather ordinary elm specimen.  Do you?

Now for a real challenge!  I’ve done my share of growing Bald cypress from seed, and this is one example of a specimen started from seed a few years ago.  Last year I tried to grow a bunch in standing water, but that experiment really went south.  So I ended up potting the trees into gallon containers and leaving them alone.  This one grew in such a way that I could chop to create taper, but otherwise it had ended up shaped like a bow.  Really ordinary material.  In this photo you can see it without its foliage, which I stripped off in order to work on it.







In this photo you can see the big flaw in this specimen.  It just bows over, and that’s no design feature!  But not to worry.  Wire can fix many things.











So after a few minutes of really enjoyable wiring and shaping and trimming, followed by potting up the little guy, here’s what I came up with.  Do Cypresses grow as windswept specimens?  Well, I can tell you from living in Hurricane Katrina Land that there are many examples of Live oaks along the Gulf Coast that ended up this way, so I have no problem making a Bald cypress with this design.  One thing’s for sure, if I don’t like it I will get trunk buds that will give me a more traditional design if I choose to change it.

This one was fun as well.  I know from experience that Bald cypresses mature quickly in a bonsai pot.  Within a couple of years, the trunk is going to take on a grayness that hints of age even in a small specimen.  As I work on the branches, they’ll begin to make the tree look like more than what it is now.  This Bald cypress bonsai is about a five-year project to something really nice, despite its humble beginnings.

The point of all of this, I suppose, is to make a clear distinction between bonsai as a spectator sport and as the active working of trees and pots into artistic designs.  I don’t mean to minimize bonsai displays in club and other sponsored shows, so don’t get me wrong.  But that’s the very temporary result of all of the design work that encompasses many years of effort and vision.  And that, for me, is where bonsai is at.  Bonsai is 95% vision, sweat, work, setbacks, and more work, and about 5% kicking back and saying or thinking, “Man, that looks awesome!”

That’s my take.  What’s yours?


10 Replies to “How I See This Wonderful Bonsai Journey. How About You?”

  1. robert gardner

    As usual you hit the nail on the head. Bonsai to me is collecting designing keeping alive and learning the to create a wonderful tree in a pot that represents a full grown tree in nature. While Bonsai shows are great they don’t ever cover all the hard work Bonsai people go to in order to make the tree that they are looking at. Many hours days and even years go into making most of these trees. I have had seeds take two years to grow and when the did it was in the middle of winter and they lived.
    Thanks to people like you we can all learn more about the full filing life absorbing hobby of Bonsai..

    • Zach Smith Post author

      I appreciate your comments, Bob. I’m particularly appreciative of your observation of all the work behind the all-too-brief showing of a tree.

  2. Raymond A Schell

    A real good statement on your interest in bonsai Zach and I’d also add, botany in general.

  3. tim

    For me the ratio is more like 15% work, 5% “that looks awsome!”, and 80% c’mon grow grow grow!!! What’s taking so long?!?! Hahaha

  4. Gordon

    Great article Zach, for me the enjoyment comes in the interaction when the tree talks to me now don’t get me wrong my trees don’t actually speak to me but when I manipulate a tree whether it be trimming, wiring, trunk chop or whatever this garners a reaction from the tree. I find myself anticipating this reaction and hoping for the desired but excited for any reaction. Sometimes the reaction is so unexpected that it changes my whole plan but that is just as exciting as the ones that go as planed. Usually this is pre-bonsai material not necessarily finished bonsai I get much more enjoyment out of getting them up to bonsai stage not as much after it’s there. Although it seems never to be “finished” for me. It seems the tree has a plan as well as I do and sometimes the coinside other times the tree changes the plan drastically but it is always enjoyable.

    • Zach Smith Post author

      Thanks, Gordon. I can echo your comments. Trees often grow the way they want to, not the way we plan for them to. We always have to be prepared to make adjustments to our thinking, right?

      • robert gardner

        Gordon via Zach,
        Gordon don’t put off trees talking to you. After why do we play longhair music to them, MAKES THEM GROW FASTER. When I walk through a nursery looking for plants whether it be a Bonsai nursery or garden center when the sales people ask me for help I
        just turn to them and tell them I am waiting for the plants to talk to me and it happens about 90 percent of times. So they will talk to you if you care to listen. As for shaping them try a little prebending and wait fr them to respond and they will. Now don’t think that I am a kook have done experiments in college Botany classes to prove my theory.

        • Gordon

          while I agree the do talk to us, I have come to the conclusion they don’t speak English. They can be quit persistent when one doesn’t listen though!


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