Bonsai - How to Start
Some advice from Hare-Yama Ryu
It all begins in the mind
If you are attracted to bonsai and have an interest in owning or making your own bonsai then by simply having the intent, you have probably started already, even if only in your thoughts.
Bonsai is an art form and an appreciation of the art form has to be at the heart of any efforts that you may subsequently spend in order to become part of this fascinating, challenging, but very rewarding pastime.
So firstly, a little about art in general
We believe that art is something you do, and not something you own.
Art should be considered to be a verb and not a noun. Therefore, buying an artwork is not art, it is something else. But painting a picture is an act of art as it records the feelings, intentions, skills and imagination of the artist. So it is this act of making the art work that is art, not the finished product that is simply a record of the artistic thoughts and actions of the artist.
A good example is to illustrate this further is that of a dancer who may have performed a dance particularly well during a specific practice. The dance was executed to physical perfection. It was particularly innovative as flashes of inspiration added to the interpretation. It captured the exact essence of the intent of the dance and left the dancer feeling that she or he has achieved something remarkable. It was art in its fullest sense. Yet in this case, there was no audience and no camera to record either memories or physical evidence of its ever having happened. So there is no record of this great artwork - but it was real and did, even does still exist.
This can also be equated to a painter who paints a perfect picture with a dry brush. With each stroke perfect, the composition immaculate and the subject remarkable and inspirational, the artwork exists, but only in that it was the act of doing it.
We can extend this thought directly into the art of bonsai as bonsai too should be the art of creating these little illusions, rather than simply being that admired item standing on the shelf. It should be the process of creating the bonsai that is the art and not having a finished bonsai to show off to one's friends. Yet we also understand the materialistic world of the modern era, and obviously even bonsai artists want something to show for their long-suffering efforts.
But there is a difference here to some extent in that this artwork is still alive and is never completed. Unlike a painting that at best will stay the same for centuries, a bonsai will demand of its care-taker continuous attention not just to maintain it, but to continue with the art of developing it into something more and more beautiful as the years pass by. So in this case, the act of art is never over (unless poor care results in the premature demise of the plant used). This special consideration indeed distinguishes bonsai from most (if not all) other art forms.
But it is a long way from intent to reality. And if this path is to be navigated successfully, we believe there are three things that the bonsai artist must develop (or simply employ if they already exist) in order to produce a bonsai, or indeed any other noteworthy object 'd art. These things are:
of the art form, the media, the physical limitation, etc
the techniques, the actual physical or mental dexterity, the use of the tools required to fashion the media into the final product, etc
that uniquely human spark that distinguishes us from all our other animal peers, and allows us to produce unique art objects by thought and intent, rather than sheer serendipity.
Some Bonsai Styles
Bonsai, an art of illusion
Bonsai is often defined as an art of illusion, where images are created that suggest immensity in spite of their tiny forms. Technically it is not the tree or plant in the container that is the bonsai, but the "planting in a tray" of plant and various auxiliary items that create this illusion. Of course as with a magician, it is the quality of his skill, imagination and craft that will determine how believably are his illusions. So too with bonsai, impatience, poor craft, lack of imagination and bad technique will not be convincing. The combination of plant, container, the actual planting or landscaping, and the subsequent training are some of the aspects that need to be dealt with to complete this illusion.
Down to business
So much for the philosophy, now lets get down to the reality of getting a plant into a container and developing it into a miniature living sculpture of a tree or natural scene based on plants.
A Golden Rule
Whatever your approach is to starting your own bonsai, we recommend our tried and tested approach of:
First the roots
Second the trunk
Third the branches
Deal properly and completely with all of these …..
……….. and the leaves, fruit and flowers will look after themselves.
This approach applies to whether you buy a ready-made bonsai or start from scratch by planting a seed. As while you can ensure that your seedling is developed correctly step by step, a "ready-made" bonsai often needs to be taken back a stage or two to redo steps that were neglected completely or partially. We often return plants brought to us for care (that were bought as completed bonsai) back into large developing containers. This allows the plant to develop a root systems that it was never allowed to develop in the first place. A poor root system will ensure that a bonsai struggles throughout its probably abbreviated life.
How to acquire a bonsai
There are various ways to acquire your first bonsai
1. Purchase a ready-made bonsai and have it maintained by the bonsai grower who made it or sold it to you.
2. Purchase a ready made or partially developed bonsai and continue with its development on you own - perhaps with some initial guidance from the grower or someone else skilled in the art of bonsai.
3. Acquire a plant (from a garden centre, your or a friend's garden, or where permitted, the wild) and begin its development as a bonsai.
4. Begin your own plant with a seed or a cutting and do the whole thing yourself from birth to established bonsai.
Yet none of these is a clean obvious choice as each has its own drawbacks and advantages.
1. Purchasing a ready made and fully maintained bonsai
Purchasing a ready-made bonsai from some supplier and having them maintain it will probably produce a good display provided you have chosen the source well - not an easy task if you have no knowledge of bonsai. There are many "bonsai" sellers who have little or no knowledge of the art form, little care for the survival of the plant, and even less respect for the high standing of bonsai as one of the noblest art forms in Japan. You may end up with nothing more than a slowly dying plant that was turned into a "bonsai" overnight, and has never seen a day's real bonsai training in its life. Personal recommendation from someone with a sufficient length of experience is your best guide when seeking out a reputable supplier. Obviously some knowledge gained from books, and a lot of common sense help too. Do not be seduced by claims of great age, pretty flowers, or the exotic oriental sounding names often given to ordinary plants.
Of course, the disadvantage of this approach is that the purchased and maintained bonsai has nothing of you in it other that its daily care of watering, supplying sunlight, and occasional feeding. But for some with a fear (or bad record) of tending plants, this may be the best approach, and may with time allow you to develop the confidence you need to become more involved in the true art of bonsai.
2. Purchasing a ready-made bonsai to look after yourself
Having found a reputable bonsai supplier, one will usually be offered a support service that will allow you to return any bonsai purchased for trimming and other maintenance tasks. You can watch and learn from seeing these tasks performed and with the guidance of the bonsai grower involved, be able to take over these tasks as your confidence develops. The real advantage of this approach is that you get to learn the maintenance skills that will be essential when you begin your own bonsai, and in the meanwhile you get exposed to the other aesthetic aspects of bonsai such as styles, proportions, container choices and plant types.
However, it is again necessary to ensure that you go to a reputable source to purchase your bonsai. A good supplier will be able to tell you about the bonsai, its form, the requirements for its further development, etc.
3. Starting with a gathered plant
For the DIY enthusiast, the third option is the most popular as it allows someone with minimal financial outlay to begin experimenting with the growth of bonsai, and the forming of that growth into acceptable bonsai styles. This involves searching through gardens, garden centres, open fields (where permitted), farms and any other places where plants may be growing, to find a plant that already has some age and exhibits some characteristics that will be useful in your bonsai design. It is not difficult to find a plant that looks like a suitable bonsai subject, yet even this find is often wrought with risk.
Garden centre plants are seldom suitable for planting directly into bonsai containers and it is necessary to address the roots of the plant to develop them into the flat form that is needed for a bonsai container. Typically the roots of garden centre plants grow predominantly vertically downwards until they reach the bottom of the container (black bag or whatever). In shallow bonsai containers, the requirement is for a horizontal root system that spreads itself throughout the container.
First Step, Dealing with Roots
Quick fixes by bending roots to suit the bonsai container do not work well apart from lucky exceptions and it is better to repot the plant into larger temporary container that is flatter, and then to trim the roots and shape them as best possible to start them on the path that they should be following. It may even take a further repotting or two to check the roots and redirect their growth if necessary. This is an enormous subject all of its own and something definitely better done with the help (at least initially) of an experienced bonsai grower. Things like knowing how much of the original soil may be removed, and how all the original soil can eventually be removed are a matter of good judgement gained from a lot of experience (and of course experience is often gained from a lot of bad judgement so save yourself a lot of heartache and get experienced assistance).
Of course all this does not help if you do not know anything about bonsai styles, bonsai horticulture, containers etc, so attending courses or workshops will save you a lot of time and disappointments. Books help a great deal but hands-on help is invaluable.
4. Starting your own bonsai from a cutting or seed
Starting your own bonsai from a cutting or seed is indeed the final quest but will obviously mean it will be years before you have anything worth displaying. The real value of this approach is that one is able to achieve things like:
a. Producing a plant from known plants to inherit specific characteristics
b. Producing a plant with a ready-made history, like taking a cutting from the tree Isaac Newton sat under
c. Producing plant material that you cannot find at any garden centre
d. Developing the bonsai step by step to ensure that all biological, horticultural and aesthetic aspects of the plant are best suited to its use as a bonsai.
But apart from advantages of this type, it is still necessary to develop the tree in a large container until it is sufficiently developed to be planted into its final bonsai container. Technically, only at that point will it become a bonsai, but the wait will be well worth the effort as one can expect that the plant will have high aesthetic value, will be very soundly established in a biological sense, and will have a long life expectancy.
Clearly there are advantages and disadvantages to each of the ways to acquire a bonsai discussed above. None offers all the solutions to the beginner but all also have their merits when you are starting out with this grand pastime. We believe the approach shown in the following summary ensures you get the whole spectrum of experiences that practicing this art from can offer you.
The Hare-Yama Ryu three-pronged approach to beginning your bonsai collection
1. Purchase your first bonsai in a developed or semi-developed state and learn how to keep it alive. Extend this knowledge by finding out more about the biology of the plant used, or plants in general.
2. Learn about the aesthetics of the art form. Attend workshops, visit exhibitions, read books.
3. Then put your know-how into practice by experimenting with your own bonsai. Be prepared for setbacks and see them as part of the learning experience. Use full size plants in the garden to discover how trimming and shaping works and how plants react to these processes. Plant some seeds and cuttings, and gather a plant from a garden or garden centre to begin training as a bonsai.
A final thought
Remember, that no knowledge is ever wasted. So find out as much as you can to be able to make the wisest choices for each situation you encounter. Then as your knowledge and craftsmanship develop, allow your intuition and imagination to contribute their part towards producing bonsai that have your stamp of uniqueness on them.
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Last updated 2017-11-11 09:15