I started on a bonsai journey this year. It’s a journey of faith, learning, and patience.
What Is Bonsai?
Bonsai is about trees. It’s about growing them in containers, nurturing them so that they look mature. It’s an artform using a living tree to tell a story. But it is so much more than that.
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Faith in Yourself and in Nature
You need to start with a bucket load of faith. Faith that you have the capacity to care for a tree well enough to keep it alive, not just for a few months, but possibly for the rest of your life. You need to believe in your ability to maintain the energy and enthusiasm necessary that will endure.
Some of you may be thinking that this sounds like bringing a child into the world and becoming a parent. Nothing can compare to the responsibility and inner turmoil of a parent. How can it? I merely suggest that bringing the right kind of attitude is the first requirement in your bonsai journey, and that you need to take it seriously.
I am a self-proclaimed Negligent Gardener. I’m often cavalier in my plant care. I confess this every day and yet I’ve been able to keep my plants alive (well, at least most of them), for many years. But having a track record of plant survival was not going to be enough. I waited. I researched. I reflected about if I wanted to commit to so much time and effort.
I got a little carried away in thinking about my own bonsai, I’ll admit. I actually wondered what I would do if my trees survived and I didn’t? Who would recognize the beauty in my, as yet unrealized, creations? I don’t blame you if you think this is a crazy thought. But you also need to consider that many bonsai enthusiasts will list their most beloved trees in their wills. It’s true that some bonsai specimens hold considerable monetary value, but that is not the main reason to pass it down to a loved one. Bonsai easily become family heirlooms which are passed down through several generations.
It was a strange realization for me that just delaying for an extended period of time before buying any plant material was changing my entire outlook on gardening in general. My offhand attitude has always included watering my plants when I had time and not when the plants needed it; fertilizing when I remembered not on a schedule; and procrastinating when a plant needed to be repotted. The more I reflected on if I wanted to venture into bonsai, the more I was paying attention to the plants I have. And it was an amazing feeling of accomplishment. So gardeners don’t have to be perfect, as I’ve said many times, but we should strive to improve.
This is where the faith in yourself comes in. Because you will need to constantly push yourself to improve.
Do you have at least some degree of horticultural knowledge? Practicing bonsai will offer a reason for you to deepen that knowledge and apply it in the right way at the right time. The art of bonsai can’t even take place if the tree isn’t growing, isn’t thriving.
Starting out with the practical knowledge of how to keep a tree alive will give way to greater learning. Get ready to drink from the fire hose for a while because you are using this knowledge in a different way. Your tree isn’t depending on native soil anymore, it’s depending on you.
You’ll want to know the characteristics of your specific tree to not only maintain its health, but to improve it. Help it grow more quickly, flush out new buds to help with branch ramification, develop a strong root system as a foundation for everything else you do with the tree.
Where are you going to gain this knowledge? In today’s world, the number of places you can learn are ever increasing. Start with searching for bonsai clubs. By coincidence, a friend of mine was starting a bonsai club in our area. The people I’ve met through this club have been key in my decision to consider bonsai. We’ve come together in our enjoyment and appreciation of plants of all kinds, especially trees. These experienced hobbyists have been generous with sharing their time and expertise. They share their successes and failures. They encourage beginners, showing them the best ways to start.
For example, I have lots of experience starting plants from seed. Turns out this is not the best way to start a tree. Go figure. A better way is with nursery stock. Going to the local nursery and seeing what trees they have in pots. Starting with nursery stock lets you hit the ground running with a healthy tree. At least if you fail with your first tree, you haven’t lost too much money, right? Advance to collecting trees in the “wild.” You’ll need to seek permission first, but there are lots of places to collect trees that are already growing in the ground and then carefully lift those trees into an appropriate container. Construction sites, neighbors’ yards, and sometimes even national forests will provide opportunities for interesting trees.
Where else can you educate yourself? Yes, it’s time to explore bonsai on YouTube university. There are lots of free sites with tons of excellent information.
Are you unsure if you have what it takes to do bonsai? Check out Herons Bonsai in the United Kingdom. Peter Chan has been practicing bonsai for decades and offers a sense of possibility for the beginner. Peter makes it look easy (most of the time) and may give you confidence with his “there is no wrong way” attitude. But don’t stop there.
If you’re looking for a much more methodical, purposeful, and in-depth source, check out the free videos from Bonsai Mirai. Ryan Neil has a huge library of teaching videos online and has a select few on YouTube. He offers a deep dive into bonsai and if you find yourself overwhelmed initially, I’d suggest checking out the videos of other bonsai enthusiasts before you go back again. Ryan’s videos have become the staple for bonsai education, so when you’re ready, check out his entire library on his educational website, live.bonsaimirai.com. He even offers a week’s trial period at no charge.
There are also videos from bonsai artists around the world. Try out Nigel Saunders, Bonsai Empire, or Esei-en Bonsai, and there are so many more. Take your time, browse the myriad of videos on YouTube, and start learning.
Of course there are books. I have several books on my Kindle that I refer to repeatedly. I have several by Peter Chan of Herons Bonsai including The Bonsai Beginner’s Bible and Bonsai, The Art of Growing and Keeping Miniature Trees. I also have The Little Book of Bonsai by Jonas Dupuich. Or scroll through a list of books on Amazon, you’re sure to find one that appeals to you. Bonsai can be as complex or as simple as you want to make it, so do the research until you know when and how you want to begin.
And none of this research means you have to take the plunge into bonsai. That’s completely up to you.
I’ve written before about how gardening can be a very meditative hobby. Working in the soil is healing, there’s just no other way to put it. Keeping your hands busy, breathing in the odors of the outdoors, the dirt, and the flowers helps to free up your mind. It gives your mind a break. If gardening is healing, then bonsai is even more so. It may even be the most meditative gardening activity you can undertake.
The art of bonsai can take many years to learn so it is going to take more of your attention, occupying your mind more fully. Give yourself time to understand it, allow yourself to enjoy it, and don’t rush the process or yourself. You need patience because you are working with a living plant that grows at its own rate and takes its own path.
You can plan for a design of a certain tree and then the branches grow in a way you couldn’t predict. So you’ll need patience and flexibility. Work with the plant, not against it, and strive for the knowledge that will allow you to do that. The art of bonsai slows you down. Slows down your decisions, your thinking, and your actions. There is no rush so take it easy and breath deeply. Relax.
One benefit of slowing down is a deeper sense of connection to the tree. This is one reason why many enthusiasts rarely buy trees styled by others. There is no sense of connection with how the trunk curves or what angle the branches leave the trunk. Connecting with people is a natural thing and I’m not saying you are connecting with bonsai trees in the same way. As you are styling the tree, telling a story with its branches and trunk, you are creating your own story. One that is only meaningful to you. Memories are hanging off the branches, sliding along the trunk, and steaming up from the soil. As with any memory, your emotions closely follow. You relive the frustration of accidentally breaking a branch, the joy of success as the tree leafs out in the spring in glorious splendor. The artistry of the tree is a result of your choices, your care, your constant learning. Your pride may be a little overwhelming.
This is only going on in my imagination right now. I’ve chosen to start with much smaller trees. I have several seedlings that will only be growing for a few years. No styling for them for a while. I have two trees that were already styled. One is a Fukien tea which is a houseplant in my region. I have felt pride in how healthy it is. And how it flowered very well, another accomplishment. The other tree is a crabapple that someone else started. I’ve let it grow since I purchased it and this Spring I’ll need to do some pruning and possibly repotting. I love this little tree and am excited to see where I can take it from here.
Take it Slow
I took an entire year before I bought a single tree for bonsai. I spent that time reading, watching videos, and talking to bonsai enthusiasts in my area. Maybe you don’t want to take that long but remember that everything about bonsai takes patience. Embrace the calm by taking your time.
The best start is to observe. You’ll be shocked what you see when you start looking closely at trees in nature. Isn’t doing this one thing a way to enhance how you live? Enjoying nature in a different way than you have before? Next, take some time at your local garden center and look at the trees they offer for sale. Perform the same detailed study of those trees. You’ll be surprised about how much your mind starts racing after an hour at the garden center.
If these activities have sparked an interest in diving headlong into the process of bonsai, remember to look for a local club. Experienced members of the club will be your greatest source of information and encouragement.
Bonsai is about connection. Connection with nature. Connection with yourself. Connection with others. I wish you well on your own journey, I suggest that it may be worth your time.