A bonsai is a tree, shrub or woody vine potted in a shallow container and trained so that it looks like a mature tree in nature. Getting from tree, shrub or woody vine to that ideal composition, however, requires a significant array of decisions and manipulations. We start with the plant specimen. We envision a design by considering trunk, branches and root base. We trim, wire and position trunk and branches so that our design takes shape. And finally we select a proper container for the bonsai-to-be and complete our composition by placing the tree in the container.

This is a gross over-simplification, of course. But I hope in this post to give you some guidance that will make this whole mysterious process a little easier.



Let’s start with our Cedar elm friend from the other day.

When I decided to do the initial styling of this tree, I had to make some decisions that would ultimately produce the best outcome for it. In doing so, my first order of business was to figure out what I had and the different options available.

I can tell you that every piece of material you work on is going to present you with multiple options – even if some of those options are downright terrible.

Let me give you an example with this specimen.

On first glance you can’t help but see a normal upright tree form. This is what you’re supposed to see, by the way, because that’s pretty much what this tree is. Nothing especially fancy about it. But someone might suggest to you that the tree needed to be chopped to the lowest shoot and regrown over time. This is actually something that could be done.

But frankly I’m unconvinced that this will be a better bonsai in five or six years, when a new trunk has been regrown and perhaps a branch set is in place.

Sometimes the simple answer is the answer.

When I look at a tree like this, it just says upright bonsai and it’s got nice bark and taper and some branches I can work with.


At the end of the opening act for this bonsai-to-be, I had a workable set of branches, a front, and a planting angle. That’s what I “heard,” so that’s what I did.

Fast-forward two weeks.

I just got in some rectangular pots I special-ordered from Byron Myrick. This tree is best-suited to a rectangle; it has a masculine appearance, and a rectangle would enhance that appearance. So it was time to push the envelope again.



The tree had produced a lot of roots, so I slip-potted it with minimal disturbance to the roots.

Now, when I pulled the tree from the pot, I discovered a nice flaring root on one side. In order to take advantage of it, I potted the tree at an angle.

‘Cause the tree said so.

I think the composition is a good one. The rectangle suits the tree well, and its color should complement the Cedar elm fall colors (yellows and bronze-yellows) very nicely.


Here’s another example of listening to your tree, a Water-elm I lifted from my growing bed today. It has a nice, slender trunk with subtle movement. It’s a feminine specimen, no doubt about it. There’s one low branch, and I chopped off the trunk that extended a few feet above what you see now as the apex. It’s a tall tree, about 20″, with a trunk base of 1.25″. These are not your normal bonsai proportions, of course, but as I studied this tree I just couldn’t bring myself to chop the trunk down where that low branch is. That’s the standard way to approach trees like this one.

It’s been done millions of times. So why should I do that yet again?

This tree seemed to want to be different, and it just so happened that I had a really different pot for it. Chuck Iker made it, and it’s been sitting on my shelf for some time now, waiting for the right tree. Well, today the match happened. The low profile of the pot is just what this tree needs. The tree is feminine, so the round pot complements it perfectly. The pot actually looks like it’s relaxed, doesn’t it?

The tree should push new buds in two weeks, assuming all goes well. I don’t plan to create a full foliage mass. I think this one should be airy and light, and unless it says something else along the way that’s what I plan to do.


So what’s the message here? Well, most of the time when you choose a tree to work on you’ll get an impression of what the tree wants to be, just from the way it’s chosen to grow. Or, as in the case of the Water-elm above, you’ll see a trunk line that looks right even though it may not fit the “normal” design ideas we usually gravitate toward. Try going with what the tree is telling you. It may take some practice, but I think you’ll find some really cool designs for your bonsai that way.