The art of bonsai allows for personal expression in the development and styling of trees, and the selection of bonsai pots. Like many art forms, it takes time and deliberate practice to do bonsai well. Bonsai enthusiasts often spend years studying to become professionals. The rest of us, regardless of Malcolm Gladwell’s research, don’t need to spend 10,000 hours studying bonsai for it to become a rewarding hobby. What we can all benefit from is guidance from enthusiasts and professionals on how to get started. So here it is: a list of seven rookie mistakes anyone new to bonsai should avoid.
1: Bonsai on a Shoestring
This is the first of two money-related mistakes. Bonsai can be an expensive hobby, but you can begin a bonsai hobby on a small budget. All you really need are a few key tools (e.g., basic bonsai scissors and tweezers), bonsai soil and fertilizer, a plant and container, and wire. Purchasing inexpensive material for $5-$10 is a fine place to start, but don’t expect that you will have a show-quality tree in a couple years with that kind of expenditure.
If you plan to spend as little as possible - bonsai on a shoestring budget - then start by learning how to propagate plants and how to grow them out inexpensively. You will be learning many broad skills if you can take a plant from start to finish into being a quality bonsai. There is a wealth of free bonsai basics information available online, between YouTube and blogs. You can also purchase a basics book for less than $20 USD. Regardless, definitely take time to read and watch a bit before selecting your first plant.
The value of a bonsai plant is determined by the market and takes into account the age, shape and style of a plant. When selecting your first plant, you may find something on sale at your local garden center or for free from your neighbor’s yard (please, ask for permission before cutting or removing anything!) You can also purchase an inexpensive bonsai starter or young bonsai tree from a bonsai retailer. Look for a plant that matches your climate and your lifestyle.
If you want to develop skills in maintaining older and more established bonsai trees, you will eventually need to procure a higher-quality (and thus more expensive) tree. Think about it this way: you can’t learn how to fix an electric car by working on an alarm clock!
2: Budget Blow-up
The opposite of the low-budget do-it-yourself approach is to just start spending a lot of money on plants. As a beginner this will enable you to learn more quickly than if you just start seedlings, but beware of budget blow-up! If you attend a sale, there may be plants that are priced above $1,000. Does a high price mean that you are buying a great bonsai? Not necessarily! First, fine-tune your understanding of what makes a good bonsai. If you plan to start purchasing expensive material, first educate yourself by watching auctions (online or in person) and seeing what is driving the value of a plant. Read old magazines (which may be the cheapest thing at the auction!) and show books to familiarize yourself with photos of high-quality trees.
Don’t spend money without understanding what you’re buying. Here is a list of features that generally drive the value of a bonsai:
- Trunk size and shape: the trunk size and taper is a difficult part of a bonsai to change or improve, it is generally considered a “given” in bonsai sales that the trunk quality represents a good portion of the value.
- Nebari: The junction of the trunk with the major roots is a key feature in a bonsai. The criteria for quality vary among different species; but the value of a plant is greatly affected by this feature.
- Branch placement and quality: if the basic primary branches are all in place, then it is much easier to create the fine twigs from that point onward. If grafts or other work are needed this takes time and work to execute.
- Twigs, branches, and the silhouette: The refined structure of a mature bonsai is made up of many tiny branches. The work that goes into these is the difference between a mediocre plant and a show-quality plant. Look at the mass of foliage to determine if it’s made up of usable and well-tended twigs.
3: Skipping Horticulture 101
Get the horticulture right first. If you can't grow your plants, you can't make a bonsai.
Whether you start on the cheap, or by buying quality trees, you will need to create a foundation of good horticulture to create and maintain good bonsai. If you’ve never grown a plant before, don’t assume that it will all just go perfectly. From the quality of your water, to the amount of sun and the temperature, each environmental factor is important to a plant. There are not an infinite number of variables, but there are a lot. A good way to get the horticulture going is to purchase 10 or more of a couple different species - seedlings are a good way to do this inexpensively. Nurture your young plants and watch what makes them grow. You should expect to spend 10 years creating a good bonsai from any starting point. Even if a tree is already a bonsai it may take that long to really make it shine.
4: Waiting for a Miracle
A miracle is defined as “a surprising and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws.” Simply believing that given enough time your tree will improve isn’t enough. Bonsai will certainly get older with time, but they are not guaranteed to get more beautiful. To make a bonsai more interesting you almost always need to do something and do it at the right time using the right technique. Self-improvement books extol the idea of having a “radical bias towards action”. If you just watch your bonsai grow, it will stop being a bonsai and end up being a tree or bush. If you use the wrong techniques it will be Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree instead of the National Arboretum’s White pine gifted from the emperor of Japan to the US during the 1990’s.
5: Innovation without Grounding
In art, there are conventions and there are experts. To be accepted as an artist by the experts in the field, you must understand how to follow the conventions. The most famous example of this is Picasso’s early work. Cubism may look like the drawing of an inexperienced middle-schooler, but this is dispelled when you see how well Picasso could execute a more photorealistic portrait. Bonsai is also an art form. To be a great bonsai practitioner you need to understand, and even imitate, great compositions. Once you understand how an old informal upright black pine is made, and maintained, then you can begin to think about how to break the conventions and be innovative. Don’t ignore the tradition and conventions in bonsai until you’ve achieved success in using them. Then innovate and find ways to create original trees.
6: Choosing the Most Photogenic Style
Many beginners gravitate toward the idea of creating a “windswept” tree and use it as their initial style of choice. This style is certainly picturesque and most beginners have at least a rudimentary understanding of the interaction of a tree and wind. This style is also one of the hardest to create. Take time to visit trees in nature to see how wind has really impacted those trees over time. Study how the trees have reacted. From the cliffs over the California coast, to the tops of the Rocky mountains, there are many places where wind influences the shape of tree growth. Studying how the tree grows in these conditions is your first step to making a windswept bonsai.
7: “Long and Straight = Couldn’t Wait”
Proportions are probably the single most important thing in bonsai. The tighter, the better. To make a good bonsai, you should aim to eliminate any branch section, trunk section, or other feature that does not actively add beauty to the composition. If you can create a good set of branches in 4 inches, that’s better than doing it in 8 inches. If you want to make a compact and interesting tree, examine each piece and think about how to make it smaller or more interesting.
Do you have any additional rookie mistakes to share? Post them in the comments below!