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Beginners and Bonsai

Eric Schrader, USA
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So many times a beginner shows up to a workshop with (or posts a picture to a forum of) a "stick in a pot" as they are frequently called. The poor person, after being subject to some amount of ridicule, is usually told to "stick it in the ground for 5 years and forget about it." This attitude, which so many experienced bonsai growers have toward the newbie and the young tree, is quite counterproductive for everyone.

A flat of Monterey Pines, about 4 weeks after germination

The beginners are not wasting time by starting with that stick, but neither are they making great leaps forward with it. Bonsai, at least at its pinnacle, is an old gnarly tree in a pot, not a young seedling or a cutting fresh from the nursery.

But between those opposite ends of the spectrum there is so much time, patience and work that we often forget that we were once beginners and that those sticks in pots that we started with have actually been made into nice little bonsai. The beginner can learn from it, and IF they get really smart about technique and understand how to either grow bonsai stock or refine intelligently then their stick could eventually become a fantastic, old, gnarly tree.

From left to right: a 1-year old Japanese Black Pine well fertilized, a 2-year old Monterey Pine that was watered and fertilized minimally for about five months, then fed regularly again and on the right a 2-year old Monterey Pine properly fertilized and watered, now planted in a pond basket and trunk wired. (It was grown in a container like the 1y-old JBP until a month ago.)

Recognizing the difference between refinement and stock growing is important: they are really quite different endeavors. While bonsai training is containment of growth and directing of it to the shape you want, stock development entails allowing tons of wild growth to fatten the trunk. But unmanaged wild growth will only result in a tree, not a bonsai. The stock grower must manage growth in a way which both fattens the tree and increases the character of the trunk. But, this is not an easy thing to do; even people who are good at bonsai, in many cases, cannot grow good stock.

The trunk of a Procumbens Nana mallsai that my wife's boss gave to her as a Christmas present, now planted in the garden to fatten up.

The teacher of a workshop, or experienced forum user, should learn to recognize the difference between something that has no future as a bonsai (say a basil plant or a tree with so many scars that there is no hope of them ever healing) and something that is merely many years away from being a good bonsai. Advice to put a tree in the ground is a way of saying that it lacks character, the hope being that it would gain more character by spending a few years in the ground. However, that most likely will not be accomplished by just planting it in the ground; the owner will need to manage the growth and direct it creatively...otherwise it will be just a tree.

A Procumbens Nana mallsai after being planted in a large container for two years and then in the ground for two more years. The tree was trained to cascade over a rock wall in my garden, the trunk is now about 2 1/2" thick and the tree is only 6 inches tall.

At the same time, the beginner needs to recognize that they are starting at the beginning of a long process when they start with a stick in a pot; 30 years is not a long time before they could expect a nice looking tree-so learn patience along with horticulture, but donít forget about your trees, keep training them whether they are in the ground or in pots.

A Valley Oak, Quercus Lobata, 2 years from an acorn grown in the ground, trunk about 1/2 inch.

I raise trees from cuttings and seedlings and I find that it is quite rewarding. Here are my tips for raising young trees to become good bonsai stock: 1.) Work with many, many trees, not one or two or a hundred, but five hundred or a thousand. Start a hundred plants per year and pretty soon youíll have some stock without even remembering how you got it. 2.) Once the plants are old enough to start training, train them and keep training them. If you wait for a pine tree to be three years old before you do any training you will have missed the two most critical opportunities. Root cutting happens at 4-6 weeks of age and initial wiring of the trunk should be done after two growing seasonsÖor sooner if the trunk is large enough to take wire. 3.) Fertilize, fertilize, fertilize, and water, water, water. I started 50 pine seedlings two years ago; I gave half of them to my father to grow and kept half in my yard. After a year separated, my trees were all 10-12 inches high and had a pencil sized trunk, the ones from my fatherís yard were 4-5 inches tall and had a trunk not even the size of pencil lead. The difference? He didnít fertilize and he watered only once per week. 4.) Wire and train them again. You thought once was enough? 5.) Donít use defoliation, candle cutting, pinching or other methods for slowing growth, they will prevent the trunk from fattening. Allow the tree to grow out, then cut it back. 6.) Two to three years worth of growth is the maximum that should be cut off at one time. If a tree is allowed to grow out for longer than this it will fatten faster, but the trunk will have scars that are too large to heal over easily. Grow two years, chop back, repeat. 7.) Be creative and take risks. With so many plants you can afford to lose a few to decisions that end up not working.

A Valley Oak, 6 years from an acorn, trunk chopped twice, trunk about 1 1/2 inches, grown in a pot all it's life.

The person who I have come to admire from a stock raising perspective more than any other I have met is named Jim Gremel. His relatively small operation in Northern California continually cranks out more high quality bonsai stock than any other that I know of. The difference between his efforts and those of others is that Jim grows only as many plants as he can train. In the ground and in pots, it makes no difference, he prunes, wires and improves these trees year after year, starting from cuttings and seedlings and working toward some of the most remarkable stock you can find anywhere. He has become locally famous for his "yamadori style" junipers, which he trains starting with small whips, twisting them up, growing them out and then twisting them up again until he has a tree that has a ton of character and interest. What I have learned from him is that, beyond proper watering and fertilization, harnessing the growth of the plant to a creative end at every opportunity is what every serious bonsai enthusiast should attempt.

This discussion goes beyond stock raising though, because if you are satisfied with the size and character of the trunk, and the major branches in some cases, then you are refining. Recognize first that bonsai come in all sizes; the size of the trunk alone is never the problem, only the relative proportion of it to the rest of the tree. If the owner wants the tree to be bonsai without fattening the trunk first they have to understand how to make a small tree look big. If a trunk is only half an inch across then the tree will be only three to six inches high. Taking a typical juniperus chinesis whip as an example, you have a 12 inch high tree with a relatively straight trunk that is only half an inch in diameter. In order for it to really look like a tall tree the proportions have to be right, if the branches are too long or large it will look like a bush. This becomes more challenging with material that has larger or looser foliage than Chinese juniper, but the principles are the same in the end. Look elsewhere on this site for some of the innumerable techniques used in the refinement.

A Valley Oak, about 65 years old from an Acorn. Grown in a pot by the teacher of my teacher.

So my advice to the beginner: take that stick in a pot, wire it, fertilize it, water it, get a hundred more and do the same. Then wait a year, and train the new growth again. Repeat until you have a bonsai that you are not only proud of, but that you created entirely from scratch. Whether it ends up smaller than what you start with or much larger makes no real difference, as long as you use good design and make a tree that you can be proud of.

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