George, this is the way I do Bonsai

Words by
John Box
| April 12, 2016

My friend George, the 13-year-old son of a friend and former business partner, was due to arrive at my house for a bonsai ‘lesson’. I thought, Shit! What can I tell him? What do I know? So I sat down and quickly dashed off the following disclaimer.

Right here at the beginning, I will say that I do it without deep knowledge. Once, I saw a bonsai. I looked at it. I liked it. And I said: I’d like to do that.

So I found myself a tree – an elm – and I started. This is what I do:

Sit down with your tree and give it a bit of a stare.
Look at it closely. What is this tree thinking? What shape does it want to be? Look at it! It’s throwing shoots out in all directions! It’s full of wild energy! It wants to go up and out and sideways! It wants to suck in the sun and couldn’t care less about what it looks like while it’s doing it. In fact, if it had its own way, it’d be a complete mess.

And that’s where you come in. You’re God.

In amongst this frenzy of sun worship and mad willy-nilly sprouting, you can see a shape, the skeleton of an idea. You can see exactly what this tree should look like. Yes, you can see the future.

Now, get out the clippers and be brave.
So you begin to cut away all the leaves and branches that aren’t part of your plan, the ones that don’t fit in with your grand design. Do it carefully but do it bravely. Of course, if you make a mistake, the tree will forgive you and offer you another chance by growing over the wound.

You look at the buds and little shoots this tree is creating. Far, far too many of them for our purposes. So you cut – or rub – away the ones you don’t want. If your plan demands that a branch grow downwards, select a bud on the underside and cut on the slant just above it. And that, in a nutshell, is the very essence of my ‘method’: I find the bud that is positioned to grow in the ‘right’ direction and cut there.

Spring and Summer are the seasons for disobedience.
You will find that you have to ‘discipline’ your trees several times during the warmer seasons. Some of them start producing shoots and leaves the minute you turn your back. So, back you go with your clippers and show them who’s boss.

With these energetic growers, I have a simple method. I cut cruelly and severely, getting rid of the shoots I don’t want, leaving only the first leaf on the shoots I want to keep.

The first leaf. Certainly the tree looks naked and shivery, but just you wait! Before you know it, it’ll be doing it again, throwing out shoots in all directions. Its DNA says shoot and it shoots. And all we can do is stand by… and clip.

The Root of the matter.
While the mechanism of the tree is pushing out sprouts up there in the open air, the same wild growth is happening underground.

You must remember that the tree we’re playing with here is actually a forest giant. It’s not some kind of weird toy poodle plant bred for bonsai.

No, we’re the men who are selfishly keeping this plant from its destiny as a huge tree. If we took it out of its pot and set it free, it would throw out its arms and reach for the sky.

With all that in mind, deep down there in the humid undersoil, the plant is busy hurling out a root system for a full-sized tree – roots far too big and hairily hungry for the pot. We have to stop that. So, every year or two, we take our trees from their pots, shake free the soil, and clip the roots. (Look, I have no science here: I just cut them until they ‘look right’ for the size of the pot. These plants are very forgiving.)

Then you replant them. Carefully, with little whispers of apology and encouragement.

What do bonsais like to eat and drink?
Here again I have a rather punk attitude. At the end of winter, I give each of them a handful of dynamic lifter (pelletized chook manure). It’s over-feeding but it seems to do the trick. Then, as the heat of summer stresses and sears the poor little buggers, I give them a bit more.

But drinking is another matter entirely. These guys live in tiny little pots in minute amounts of soil. In warm weather, such small clumps of soil dry out very quickly. And your trees will die very quickly if they don’t have water. In really hot weather, put them in the shade and water them twice a day. They’re big drinkers.

Do bonsais like being inside the house?
Not much. They’re trees. They want to be out in the sun. They want their chlorophyll. They need their chlorophyll.

But, if you want to impress your girlfriend by putting a big manly bonsai in your room, go right ahead.

It will live in there quite happily for a couple of days. But be careful to water it. Bonsais get quite upset by central heating and air conditioning. And please don’t blow your cigarette smoke on them. Don’t smoke? Even better.

Now, this wiring business.
I don’t do it.

I don’t do it mainly because I don’t know how to. But I also think it looks weird and artificial.

In spite of all my talk of our godlike interference with the true forest giant destiny of our little victims, I do strive to make them look natural. (Natural in a tortured, hanging-off-a-cliff kind of way.) And coils of copper wire just don’t seem all that natural to me.

But centuries of bonsai masters would most certainly disagree.

George, if you want to wire, go right ahead. But you will need to read a book or seek out a true bonsai master for that.

And that, in this brief hurried summary, is about all I have to say. It’s probably stuff you already know – but I did say at the beginning I don’t know a lot. I enjoy maintaining my little guys. I like looking at them and fiddling with them, always finding something to snip and clip at. And at the beginning of every Spring I look forward to their mad, delinquent energy as they strive to grow their own way… and utterly obliterate the shape I have chosen for them.

George, you have a lifetime of quiet, contemplative, clip-crazy contentment ahead of you.

Buon viaggio.

The image used in this post is of a trident maple (Acer buergerianum) bonsai at the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum at the United States National Arboretum. Photographer: Sage Ross, source: Wikipedia Commons.


LIKE WHAT YOU'RE READING? SIGN UP FOR MORE