I’ll be the first to admit that “stick-viewing” does not automatically lead one to a great bonsai design. Even armed with time-tested design principles, it certainly can be difficult to see the tree in the stick. Here’s a prime example, a Crabapple (Malus species).

So this stick isn’t likely to make you think of a real tree in the landscape; in fact, if anything it might make you think of a dead tree that is in the process of going from skeleton to snag, on its way to sawdust. But it is alive.
















Okay, so there’s now some growth on this stick, but it’s still just a stick. How do you envision anything when faced with this?

















Now this is decidedly better. No longer are we looking at a stick. We’re looking at a growing tree, with plentiful branches. There’s something to this Crabapple. All that needs doing now is to put the right branches in the right spots using wire and a little foresight.

But … would it surprise you to learn that many budding bonsai artists still face difficulty when confronted with a tree like this one? I’ve found this to be the case when I teach workshops. It appears that one of the hardest things to learn when learning bonsai is how to see a design in your material.

Don’t be too hard on yourself if this is you. I truly believe that anyone with “bonsai designers block” can overcome their difficulty by falling back on a few relatively simple principles. Here they are:

  1. Know your trunk line: for this Crabapple stick, the trunk line was pretty easy to find since there’s not a lot of complexity in the trunk’s movement. I will say, though, that what you’re seeing is indeed one of a number of possibilities and I believe I chose the best one.
  2. With your trunk line selected, your next order of business is to zero in on the L-R-B or R-L-B or L-B-R or R-B-L branches that will form the start of your design. This is code for left-right-back, right-left-back, left-back-right, and right-back-left. How do you do this? Read on.
  3. Starting at the soil surface, visually measure up about one-third to one-half of the way from the soil to the expected final height of the tree, and see if there’s a branch on the opposite side from where the trunk line is pointing at its tip. If this branch is also on the outside of a curve of the trunk, so much the better; if not, then see if there’s a branch on the opposite side of the trunk emerging from the outside of the curve. (No curving here, so I’m looking on the left side of the tree.)
  4. Now that you’ve found your first branch, it’s time to find your second branch. This can either be on the opposite side of the tree or in the back, depending on how much you have to choose from. From the first branch to this branch should be about half the distance from the soil to that first branch (give or take; it’s not always precise).
  5. With the first and second branches identified, it’s time to wire them using a single wire that makes a complete loop around the trunk. You have to be very careful doing this, if you’re working with a tree that has tender new shoots on it. Once your branches are wired, give them some gentle curves and bring them more horizontal if they’re trying to grow upward.
  6. Now it’s time to identify that third branch, which will either be on the left, right or in back of the tree. This is dependent, of course, on where your first two branches are. From the second branch to this one should be about half the distance along the trunk as from the first to the second branch (ideally). Once you have the third branch identified, move on up the tree to the next branch that continues the progression. Ideally we want a sequence such as left-right-back-left-right-back-left-right-back and so on, all the way up the tree, the so-called spiral staircase sequence. Usually you don’t have this luxury, but you should be able to identify a sequence that works. (And the fact is, if every bonsai were created using the exact same sequence of branches, boredom would quickly ensue; our trees are unique and different from one another because we have to design them with rules in mind but also with flexibility added in.)
  7. With branch number four identified, wire that one with number three using a single wire that makes a complete loop around the trunk of the tree. Give them gentle curves and bring them into the horizontal plane.
  8. Continue this process the rest of the way up the tree, with the final wiring and shaping to be done on the new leader.

Here’s what I made out of this Crabapple. The “rules” weren’t followed exactly, but I followed that game plan and adjusted as I moved from bottom to top in the tree. I think this is a pleasing design, and will look like a real tree once it matures.














To recap, here are some of the rules I described above illustrated for you. Note how the rule of thirds has been followed. Beginning with a definitive trunk line, I found my number one branch where it needed to be, and it emerged from the side of the trunk opposite where the trunk line was pointing. Having identified that branch, then I looked for my number two branch. In this case, it emerged from the back of the tree so that’s the one I went with. Notice that the distance between the first a second branch is about half the distance between the first branch and the soil surface. I didn’t have a right branch in the ideal spot, so I made up for that by identifying a forward pointing branch a little higher up the tree, then wiring and bringing it downward to provide some foliage in the visual space on the right. This is not according to the ideal plan, but I was flexible and improvised and it’ll make this design unique. Then I then found and wired branches going around the trunk as I worked my way upward spiral staircase fashion, always in pairs, until finally I wired the new leader and positioned it where it needed to be.

I think this is the start of a great design for this Crabapple. What do you think?

Want to take over the design plan? Click here.