The Seven States of Bonsai – Part One

If you are reading this you want to learn something about bonsai… sometimes we don’t even know what we are searching for… just something, anything really, which will help us be more successful in keeping our trees alive. Originally this was going to be one huge post, and then my husband rightly pointed out that I was literally (without accounting for the photos at all) posting a ten page paper as a blog post, which is of course laughable in the blogging world.

So here’s what we’re going to do… We’re breaking up the essay into more digestible chunks, but please know that it was intended to be a single presentation on how to become more aware of your trees in a way not often talked about. Every couple of days a new part will be posted.

Eric has his various soap boxes, and horticulture is mine. If you serious about being successful in bonsai, the first thing you need to do is pay attention to your trees while armed with enough knowledge to know what they are trying to tell you. So here we go… I hope you enjoy the journey of this kind of long-winded but useful digest of a year in the life of a bonsai tree.

The Seven States of Bonsai – Part One

The following is a series of observations based on real world experience and study under the guidance of our teacher (Daniel Robinson) and others. Consider it, in a fashion, as an Intro to Bonsai Horticulture 101/102. This will not reveal anything earth shattering to those long in the art… but to those who do not have easy access to advanced practitioners or still find it all a bit mysterious, it may be the beginnings of an understanding that will grow with your own experience.

In fact… though we are advanced students, we make no claim to having all the answers, and acknowledge that none of these concepts we are about to put forward are all encompassing to all bonsai. So we invite exploration and conversation about any and all of it… even disagreement… as it will lead to clarity all the way around. I may not explain something well… and will even venture to say there are likely important omissions – the specific needs of bonsai are as varied as the species we grow. But when we engage in the exchange of ideas and experience, we all tend to be better for it. Our hope is to encourage all of our growth by thinking of how our trees grow in a way that is more holistic… and how the things which we do (both intentional or not) effect the whole tree.

Please also note… this essay was written from the perspective of our experience, which is focused on outdoor species. It should be read through that understanding.


(Ponderosa Pine collected and styled by Dan Robinson)

Sometimes we can get caught up in all the esoteric and lofty bits of bonsai… the art at the soul of it. We see images of trees in pots that take us to faraway places, or show us expressions of incredible age and perseverance, and we are captivated. It’s often easy to connect with these trees… they are a deeply visceral experience for those who become devotees – but it can sometimes be difficult to understand how to recognize the needs of our own humble efforts, or how to provide for them, especially for one new to the practice.


(Kingsville Boxwood)

It is in those times, when you hold a tree in your hands with the nervous itch of a parent with a new born babe, that it can be very good to keep in mind what can be thought of as the seven states of bonsai. By states I mean their physical condition/activity in any given time: Active growth, Reproduction, Stasis, Stress, Recovery, Dormancy, and Dead.

It is important to know that more than one state can be in play at any given time. It might even seem ridiculous to some to think of bonsai in such simplified terms – but knowing where you are at, can lead you down the path to know what to do, or better… what questions to ask. You might have even thought it was amusing to read the last state of dead… except that if you understood the consequences and interplay of all the rest, you can make great headway in staving off the last. They don’t even run in any particular order – excepting the last. They are, through the consistent practice of the art, the ever changing dance you will experience over the seasons and years with each and every tree you take into your care.

Active Growth: Of them all, active growth is generally the easiest to recognize. A majority of the tree exhibits new and hopefully vigorous growth. When in active growth many different things are occurring simultaneously. Leaves and branches are extending, roots are also extending and multiplying, and in the case of deciduous trees wood is being added over the whole structure of the tree equal to the mass of the extensions of growth. So the more growth added on, the more size the trunk and branches gain. Conifers will tend to add that extra wood at the end of their active growth period, though they can actually add wood in the early stages of growth on particularly strong trees pushing a lot of growth.


(American Larch, originally collected by Nick Lenz, developed by Dan Robinson.)

For most regions early spring to fall is when you can expect this activity to be going on; unless you are talking about tropical species, which can have several active growth periods during a given year. Forcing trees to go outside of that normal period is possible with experience and the ability to provide the right environment, but there can be serious risk of stressing the tree and it should not be attempted without serious consideration and preparation. (For example, it’s not unusual for masters to force a tree to bloom earlier or later than normal in order to have blossoms on the tree timed for a particular show.)

It is also during active growth that most of the “fun” occurs for many people, as that’s when you get to watch the tree change noticeably and there tends to be a lot of opportunities to interact with the tree in terms of pruning/wiring it.
(Same tree later the same day after I gave it a haircut and adjusted the crown.)

For a tree young in its development, a good season of active growth is very important as it creates the structural development needed to form the image you are attempting. Active growth can also be a downright nuisance though when working with a more mature tree. Too much active growth can reverse years of careful attention to the structure of a tree as easily as it can build it in another. Hence controlled growth on a mature tree is a must, where on a young tree radical growth is encouraged to speed up the development of trunk and main branches by unrestricted root growth (planting a tree out in a grow bed or oversized pot)and/or a vigorous feeding program. Note that the development of ramification (both in the sub-branches and roots) is a task completed only with time, and controlled growth. To create a “final” image utilizing juvenile active growth will mean there is little to no taper in the length of the branch, and in creating a refined image, taper is everything.


(Collected Korean Hornbeam acquired from Brussel’s Bonsai, developed by Dan Robinson.)

Feeding trees in active growth is a very important part of the season. As fertilizers and regimens vary by species, its best to research the specific needs of your plant keeping in mind its stage of overall development.

(In the next segment… It’s all about sex and meditation… well not really, but it sounds kinda catchy doesn’t it???)

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10 thoughts on “The Seven States of Bonsai – Part One

  1. One important note… the individual trees represented throughout this series may or may not be ours, but are trees which we have worked on if they are not. 🙂

  2. Good intro to HORT 101/102. Great photos’ as always. Maybe drop a small text, one liner with each picture. The baby dinosaur tree is mesmerizing for sure, but I am left wondering what it is! The distinction between horticulture and art was a good line to draw. I also liked the disclaimer about outdoor trees and personal experience.

    The SSOB’s seems like a smart way to correlate actual practice, with a living creature which have stages, and how it affects the aesthetics or artistic side without confusing the reader. Looking forward to Part 2 and beyond!

    • I believe to the depths of my soul that in bonsai, art without horticulture is pointless, and will either ruin a perfectly great tree, or consign one to perpetual mediocrity. I actually am looking forward to having deeper discussions about design and aesthetics… but I won’t let myself put the cart before the horse. I have quite a few things I want to say about tree physiology before that. Then the esoteric and fanciful bits (not to mention good natured arguements between Eric and I) will doubtlessly ensue.

      I dropped in the tree types to be helpful… I’ll make sure they are there for the rest of the posts.

      Sincerely,

      V

  3. Pingback: Larch Fest Continues — Patience Pays Off | Bonsai Otaku

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