Newbie Bonsai Help.

It is very common to see a photo of a seedling or small nursery stock on social media with the following comment: “I am new to Bonsai, please help with advice”. Where to start? What the follows is a number of people writing one liners or a bit more with a genuine interest to help.

I have been demonstrating and teaching Bonsai now for many years and am following what I think is a logical series of steps to enable the new Bonsai enthusiast to work towards a specific goal. It is almost paint by numbers, but in the absence of knowledge and skills, it is the best way to get the basics across in a short period of time. Here are the steps:

  • Unearth the topsoil to look at surface roots.
  • Determine the front of the tree.
  • Decide on a natural flow of the trunk dependent on the style envisaged.
  • Decide which branches / side shoots to keep.
  • Remove excess branches and foliage.
  • Some of these can be selected for deadwood (jin).
  • Create Jin.
  • Wire main trunk if required.
  • Bend trunk to desired shape.
  • Wire branches into position.
  • Clean hanging foliage up.

Each of these steps require a lot of knowledge to get to the end result. This is part of the conversation as the design unfolds. Small nursery material can take up to three hours to style with a new enthusiast in a workshop situation. The hands-on work takes only about thirty minutes to complete, but the explanations and answering of questions, in my mind the most important part, takes up a lot of time.

This Juniper is nursery stock and is 20cm high from the top of the soil. It has been standing around here for a year or so and received very little attention.

The first step is to scrape some of the soil away to see if there are any prominent, larger roots that can help to make a decision about the front / viewing side of the tree. In this case it only contained a whole lot of fine fibrous roots.

It is therefore now up to the trunk line to give an indication of what could be a possible front. For newcomers, we usually look for good movement and flow.

Once the best angle is determined to show things like flow and movement as well as taper or interesting features, it is marked and excess branches and foliage can be removed to reveal the trunk line. The conversation at this stage will include things like removing branches growing from the same height, branches on inside curves and crossing branches.

Some of the branches are identified as possible deadwood branches and these are kept a bit longer. Bark is then removed.

All of these steps have cleared the path for the trunk to be wired. Just the basic of wiring is explained and demonstrated at this stage as this skill is seen as a bit more advanced for a newbie. I think it is important to allow the person to start on their wiring pathway as it is an integral part of Bonsai design. As said, we stick to the basics at this point. It is more important to talk about design and flow at this point.

The branches can now be wired.

The next step is to place the branches in position while a conversation about safe bending takes place. Overall tree health is emphasized at all times. Once the placement is done, excess foliage, especially those growing downwards or upwards is removed. The concept of foliage pads is also touched upon. I find it is important to at this stage point things out like depth (back branches) and negative space. These are all explored ta more advanced workshops.

The last part of the workshop is focused on future growth, the role on foliage in feeding the plant (photosynthesis) and then the very important aftercare of the tree. Protection of small buds and the removal of older foliage as the tree buds over the next few months is discussed as well as feeding requirements and protection over the next month or so.

Potting, root management, carving, severe bending and more advanced wiring techniques are all part of more advanced techniques to be covered at advanced workshops.

Juniper Progress.

This Juniper was lifted in June 2015 and planted in a plastic container. It came from a garden and was planted in a very sandy soil which came away during the lifting process. It was basically bare-rooted at the time which in my mind was not ideal at the time. I did bring some of the soil with me to add to the new mix with the hope that it contained some michoriza. At this stage I also removed some of the long, whippy branches with very little foliage on it to try and balance the foliage to root ratio.

From this point on it was watered and fertilised and received plenty of sun. A few branches died over the next twelve months, but plenty of new growth showed as well. All of this was of the needle type and then reverted to adult growth. The tree was also planted into a Bonsai pot at which time the roots were reduced a bit.

I had to move my trees three in the last six months. First from a colder, wetter part of New Zealand to an almost subtropical climate. The first place was a temporary place while we were shifting our household, then to a rental until we shifted into our own house three months later. Eighteen months after the lifting (January 2018) it was time for its first styling. Deadwood was created on the cut branches and then the wiring started. This took about six hours with not more than two hours done per day. I find it is best to start at the bottom of the tree and then work towards the apex of the tree. I have just used aluminium wire and varies from 1mm thickness to 4mm thickness. Quite a few guy wires were used to pull larger branches down. I use plastic tubing to protect the branches. Due to a few harsh bends, light cracks appeared and these were sealed with cut paste.

Now it is time to let it rest. Water and fertilise, keep an eye on the wire to prevent it from cutting in give it plenty of sun. It could be show ready in about three years. The foliage pads must mature and I have left a bit of new growth on the main branch from where another branch or two can be formed to fill some gaps.

Some of the Jin are too long, but I will leave it as it is for now. It is better to shorten them later. It is not that simple to make deadwood longer later. Lime Sulphur will also be applied later after some carving, burning and light sanding.

I like to study my trees from the top as I used to style very flat trees in the past. Probably because I look at too many trees in photos. A top view shows you the depth of the tree.

I like to look at my trees from the top as I used to style very flat trees. Probably because I look at too many trees in photographs and this made my designs look very two dimensional and flat. From the top, it is easy to see the depth. You can do the same by looking at the tree from the side, but from the top you can also look for branches and foliage pads shadowing the ones below them.

Healing Powers of Bonsai

It took me a while to write this blog post as it is a personal account of a part of my life that is quite personal. People that know me will know that this is not normally something that I will do, but I do think that the time is now ripe to do so. 

I was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic melanoma during 2016 (lower case letters are deliberate) and was very lucky to come through on the other side relatively unscathed. This blog post is not about cancer and how to fight it, it is more an account of my interaction with Bonsai trees during the healing time. Much is said and is written about meditation and its positive effects on the body and mind. There are also writings and accounts of the meditative encounters that people have while interacting with nature. 

Although I do not specifically work on Bonsai trees for the sake of a meditative experience, I do believe that while working on a tree, and when totally focussed on the task at hand, it is very easy to find yourself “in the zone”. Whether this is a form of meditation, I am not sure, but it sure feels like it. Whether I am working on a smaller or a large tree, the effect is the same. I am more relaxed during and after the experience. In my mind this is due to the fact that I engage in a state of mindfulness. This is necessary as I need to respect the tree and am not in a position to make mistakes. Creative pursuits tend to ask for total mindfulness and a state of relaxed alertness to do justice to what nature has given you to work on. Without this mindfulness and focussed state, mistakes will be made and if in a hurry, wrong design decisions will be made. In Bonsai, these will take years to be corrected and can even lead to the death of a tree.

Wound drain bottle was carried around. Just making sure that the scissors and plastic tube did not meet.


During my healing after surgery and especially during the radiation phase, I regularly interacted with my trees, and as it was during Spring and Early Summer, there was a lot to do. I did miss the repotting opportunity during that time as I did not think it was wise to work too much with soil-filled bacteria and other creepy crawlies around. Most of the work was around pruning trees, styling, inclusive of wiring and also removing wire. These are repetitive actions and on a large tree can take up to three hours. Due to the radiation effects, I had to break lengthy jobs up into shorter stints to not over burden myself. Smaller trees I could move myself, but my wife had to help with the larger ones. I had a wound drain hanging out of my side and this could become tricky with the plastic drain tube and very sharp pruning scissors snipping away.

 For me, the time that I spent working on the trees, sometimes just studying the trees for future jobs and appreciating the beauty and form of trees, did impact positively on the healing process. It led to me being calmer, taking my thoughts away from the current situation and afterwards feeling satisfied with a job well done. It also forced me to be outside in fresh air. This led to a positive frame of mind which definitely helped to get me on my feet and looking forward to what the future holds.

On top of my interaction with Bonsai trees, the support of my wife, Susanna, was immense to help me through some pretty dark times and I will forever be in her debt for her support. So there you go, if something is wrong, work on your trees and make sure that you have great support around you, and you to will be up and running in no time.

Radiation time with Susanna in support. I wonder if the radiation had an effect on the trees?

Master, Apprentice, Enthusiast – Bonsai Education.

It is generally accepted and published on various websites that an apprenticeship can take capbetween 2,000 and 12,000 hours to complete. The same websites mention that it will take between two and four years to complete an apprenticeship. It is also common knowledge that Bonsai cultivation apprenticeships can take many more years to complete than an apprenticeship for an electrician or a plumber. In my field of work, it takes four years to be trained as a teacher. This normally includes a three year degree programme as well as a one year professional Diploma in Education.

What do we get for all of this? You normally walk away with a piece of paper that announces that you are a qualified professional, a person that can do a good job to a good standard in your chosen area of studies. You also earn a salary. I have read somewhere that a Bonsai apprenticeship could involve 10,000 hours of work and study, mainly hands-on work under the supervision of a master. We usually find that apprentices in other fields of work also work under the supervision of a specialist or a master, at least a qualified person with ample experience. Let us break 10,000 hours down to get some perspective on the time factor.

I have found all over the internet that an apprentice should not work for more than 40 hours per week. We also anecdotally know that Bonsai apprentices work for much longer hours, especially those who complete their apprenticeships in Japan. Michael Hagedorn mh-bookhas written about this in his book which discusses his experiences as an apprentice in Japan. If we take a normal working week as a 40 hour work week, 10,000 hours will equate to 250 weeks and if we work for 50 weeks per year, this equates to 5 years. This is hard, physical work and one wonders why it takes so much longer than other apprenticeships. The only thing that I can think of is that it is so much more than just the technical aspects of Horticulture that must be mastered. The artistic and cultural side of things probably takes a lot longer to master than the mere application of wire, watering, pruning, fertilizing and a whole host of other things that are needed to keep a tree alive.

I assume that it takes many years of cultivating Bonsai before one can be considered to be a Master Bonsai Practitioner. How many years? I have no idea. Must you go through an official apprenticeship to work towards Master status? Anecdotally, yes, but again, I do not know, but can guess that it is not necessary. In Japan these things are controlled by the Nippon Society and I can understand why. There is nothing like that in other areas of the World. Does an apprenticeship in Europe or the USA, under a practitioner who knows his business and has a proven track record, carry the same status as an apprenticeship done in Japan? A Bachelors or Masters degree from a well recognized university anywhere in the world do carry the same status. Most countries now have a Qualifications Authority which assess these things and recognize similar qualifications across the globe. Is it time that the same happens for Bonsai studies? In the mean time, where does this leave an enthusiast who just engages in his Bonsai as a hobby? Does it matter? No, I do not think so as these people (I am one of them with a little business on the side) cultivate Bonsai for reasons that have nothing to do with the commercialization of Bonsai. And that brings me to my summary.

Does the proliferation of Bonsai “courses”, both in residence as well as online, show us that Bonsai and the educational opportunities that do arise from the wider commercialization of Bonsai across the world is maturing into a world-wide commercial empire? If this is the case, then the management or control of what these courses look like, minimum requirements as well as qualifications achieved, will need a good look at and probably needs to be standardized. Out of these educational encounters, titles come to the fore. Who then is a Master, an Apprentice, a Technologist or a Hobbyist / Enthusiast?