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Horticulture of Bonsai, the beginning...

Updated: Feb 9, 2021

Have you ever wondered how high quality bonsai have full and dense branch structures?

I know, dumb questions right? I think we've all asked ourselves that at one time or another as we all venture down the road of understanding and developing Bonsai. Some of us have even gone to Japan to find out!

Bonsai for me breaks down to 2 major categories:

1. Horticulture: How to manipulate the rate of growth of the plant material.

2. Art: The style, feel, philosophy and interpretation of Bonsai to us humans.

Let's start with #1 because it's a huge topic! Without understanding how to manipulate the growth of Bonsai, quality Bonsai cannot be achieved. #2 is an even bigger and crazier topic so we'll save that for another day.

During my apprenticeship in Japan, I often thought about how to explain to future students and clients how Bonsai are created and maintained. It was a whirlwind of information my first year and slowly as I learned the history of Bonsai, practiced and observed how they grew, I started to run into core fundamentals that pop up over and over during their development. Just as I've learned when I was an auto mechanic at Ford years ago, it really comes down to understanding the system that you're working with. Understand the system and everything else, no matter how complicated or technical, falls into place. Discovering these growing fundamentals in many ways makes it much easier to educate others as to how their Bonsai are growing and sets up a solid starting point to build on. One of the many challenges that Bonsai enthusiast run into is that they tend to approach Bonsai from the top of the pile first. Which makes Bonsai really (REALLY!) confusing and hard to learn! If we get back to the fundamentals (or at least know what they even are) things will start to make sense and I find that's a much better way to learn something.

When I talk about horticulture in Bonsai, it's not so much about the specific interactions of cells in plants or plant biology as a whole (though it does help to understand some). I take a more pragmatic approach to Bonsai and understand enough of the biology when it's needed to create the Bonsai I desire. Being a Plant biologist is not a requirement to create great and beautiful Bonsai. Being creative doesn't means you can create great and beautiful Bonsai either. You need a bit of both to get the job done! In Bonsai horticulture, it has nothing to do with growing healthy trees. It has everything to do with the rate of growth at different times that helps produce structure that allows us to create a Bonsai shape/style/etc, that we want. Since many of our Bonsai structures don't look exactly alike, we'd have to assume that we're all using different strategies to growing them. That's where things can get confusing. So instead of trying to figure out how everyone is growing bonsai superficially, let's instead go to the ground floor and build up from there.

Of course I'm not saying health isn't important in Bonsai. Health in Bonsai generally is just a term we use to describe the relative rate of growth. A plant can be considered unhealthy to a person if it only grows 1 inch when 10 inches was expected or common for the species. That same plant can be considered healthy when the growth was manipulated to only grow 1 inch. You can argue that 1 inch of grow is weaker, but is it really unhealthy? Maybe, "not as healthy?" The tree still did grow and the branch didn't die off, so what does healthy really mean to us? Since health can be so subjective, I tend to focus more on the rate of growth relative to what's needed on the Bonsai. Let's face it, we're all in the business of creating small trees. It's undeniable that we have to adjust how the plant grows to keep them small.

Black Pine Candle Length
Example of 1/4 inch candles on J. Black Pine
Black Pine Candle Length
Example of candles that are over 2 inches long.

Just to clear up on some of the language I use when describing the growth rate of Bonsai in future post.

  1. Strong - rate of growth is fast

  2. Weak - rate of growth is slow

  3. Sick - there's a problem and the tree could lose branches or die completely

Weaker growth on an Olive branch
Stronger growth on the same Olive tree

6 Fundamentals of Bonsai Horticulture

Over the years of creating and teaching Bonsai, I've broken down the fundamentals of Bonsai horticulture into 6 subcategories.

  1. Sun

  2. Water

  3. Soil and Pot

  4. Re-potting Interval

  5. Fertilizing

  6. Cutting

Each of these topics can be giants in themselves and will be covered in multiple blog (with multiple parts) posts in the future to help us understand how to can created a whole program to move our Bonsai's growth in the direction we want. Making adjustments to these individual concepts will allow us to manipulate the growth rate of the Bonsai. The tricky part is that each adjustment will or can affect the other concepts so multiple adjustments may have to be made or we have to observe how the bonsai reacts to the adjustment(s) before making other adjustments. Over time, with Consistency (very important), we will develop a whole program that works for us in developing the Bonsai structure we want. Making and learning these adjustments this is one of the reasons why the development of quality Bonsai takes so long to master.

Note that #1-5 is highlighted Red. Once you've decided to make a rate adjustment (based on your observation of how one or more of your Bonsai grows) on your Bonsai, know that #1-5 will generally change the rate of growth on the whole Bonsai. (For example, when you increase fertilizer, the whole tree gets more food. Strong branches get more food and weaker branches get more food).

#6 highlighted in Blue, when adjusted will affect parts of your tree differently. (Simple example: cutting back branches will slow their growth down while other branches that are not cut will increase in their rate of growth).

Benefits of changing the rate of growth.

So what are some of the benefits of growing Bonsai at different rates. Having a strong or a weak growing tree isn't necessarily a good vs bad scenario. It's really a matter of how we need the Bonsai to grow at this moment. As long as the Bonsai is growing at the rate we want, all is right. If it's not growing at the rate we want, then there's a problem.

What a strong growing Bonsai gives you

  1. Longer and thicker branches/trunk/roots

  2. Coarse foliage and larger foliage mass

  3. Longer internodes

  4. More Resistance to Fungus/Insect attacks

  5. Ability to work on Bonsai more often or harder (Recovery from work is quicker)

  6. Silhouette expands outwards faster

What a weaker/slower growing Bonsai gives you

  1. Thinner branches/trunk/roots

  2. Finer foliage and smaller foliage mass

  3. Shorter internodes

  4. Less Resistance to Fungus/Insect attacks

  5. Worked on less often and not as hard (ability to recover from Bonsai work takes longer)

  6. Silhouette expands outwards slower

Again, it's not a one is right and one is wrong scenario. There are plenty of times we would want our Bonsai to grow stronger and times when we want them to grow slower. We first have to understand the effects of what strong/weak growth creates and then it's up to us to decide which direction we need the tree to grow currently. Sometimes we need strong growth now and weaker growth later; and sometimes we need the Bonsai to do both at the same time! (We'll discuss this more in the future)

In summary, when growing Bonsai, no matter what the developmental stage it's in, we have to be able to guide it along with varying growth rates to create the structure we want. The sooner we hone in and understand those growth fundamentals, the easier and more predictable the growth pattern will be on our Bonsai. In the near future, as I create more post, I'll break down each of these fundamentals and share with you what they are and how I use them to change the rate of growth in my Bonsai.

In the meantime, take a look at the bonsai you've been developing and see what kind of growth it has put on last year. Think about how that affects the development of the tree and are there any adjustments you need to make? Refer to the 6 Fundamentals of Bonsai Horticulture and take a serious look at how you've approached and thought of each category. Then we'll meet back here in the blog and work it all out together.

Thanks for reading and please feel free to comment below.

All topics discussed in the blog are opinions that I've developed through my experiences developing and living with Bonsai. I create and teach concepts that help me and my clients understand the horticultural and artistic sides of Bonsai. I will never suggest that my way is the only way to create Bonsai.

Other things to check on the website!

If you're looking for Bonsai pots or Annealed Copper wire, I do sell these items which you can view by clicking on the, "SHOP" tab at the top of the page. I'm currently working on the Trees for sales page and it should be coming out soon.

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