It has to be the most difficult challenge every developing bonsai artist faces: namely, staring at a piece of material that’s all full of growth but which has no clear design in sight. When I teach workshops the basic issue with every tree we work on is, “What in the world do I do with that?”

For those of you who have moved past this most basic of issues, kudos. For those of you who still struggle with it, here are a few pointers that may help:

  • Find the best front you can as a your first priority. This usually involves careful study of the trunk line – look for movement, see where your low branches are and imagine them once you’ve wired and positioned them.
  • Visually establish a trunk line from soil level to apex. When you do this, you may end up adjusting your front slightly (and in some cases completely – in which case the design may have to change).
  • Find branch number one. On this tree, there’s absolutely no question which branch is the number one branch. It’s that valiant branch all by itself at the first bend in the trunk.
  • Find branch number two. Classically, branches are arranged either right-left-back-right-left-back or left-right-back-left-right-back, in the so-called “spiral staircase” arrangement. I can tell you two things about this: one, it almost never, ever happens; and two, it’s pretty boring because if you got this arrangement with every tree they’d all look alike.

That’s not all there is to it, of course, but you have to start somewhere or you won’t end up with a design.

Here’s what I got by applying the steps I listed above. I ended up turning the tree slightly, producing an acceptable front. The reason I did this is because there’s a nice transition in the apex from trunk to small branch and into a new shoot that’s growing out nicely. I think this looks pretty cool and dramatic, and you always want to strive for drama in the movement of your bonsai.

My first branch here is actually in the back of the tree. Horrors! Well, not really. Who says you can’t start with a back branch? I’ve done it before, and if it works it works. What’s more, once this branch fills out I’m going to have a foliage pad that fills the space it needs to fill, not just in back of the tree but also on the left-hand side. As long as the Bonsai Police don’t show up, it’ll be okay.

But alas, it gets worse. The second branch on this tree is also a back branch. It’s not easy to see in this photo, but it’s for real. However, the space it needs to fill is filled.

The rest of the branches do not break any rules. (Whew!)

Now, you may be asking “Why not just change the front of this tree?” Well, to do this would create a much bigger problem, namely, the apex of the tree would be moving toward the rear of the tree. This is one of those rules that you almost never, ever, ever, can break. There’s plenty of latitude in where the branches are, in how many there are, in whether they sweep downward or upward … and so on. But it’s really, really difficult to make a bonsai work when the apex of the tree moves away from the viewer.

So at the end of the day, here’s a nice Cedar elm pre-bonsai that’s going to make a nice bonsai once it gets paired up with the right pot. Every branch is going to grow and thicken, and the wire will come off and then more will get put on. There will be pruning and pinching and all of the refining work that will ultimately make this a fine bonsai. And it all started today.