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Bonsai - How Do They Do That?
August 17, 2018

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Creating Bonsai

With Special Notes on Nursery Stock

Many Bonsai Banter readers are just being introduced to the world of bonsai. With that in mind, I decided to give a review of "how we do that." Nursery plants are one of the easiest and most popular ways to create your own bonsai ... and selecting good plant material is the first priority.

What to Look For

Large or small, proportionately thick and tapered trunks are valuable. Hopefully, you will find lots of branches to chose from. Leaves, fruit and flowers should be small compared to size of plant. The plant should be able to live happily in your climate!

In my bonsai nursery days, from time to time we would go on "nursery crawls." Many large nurseries grow plants in groups on the ground. When looking down at plants you may see beautiful leaves or even flowers, but what about the trunk? The trunk is the key to an old looking bonsai.

"Crawls" are so named, because in order to see the best attributes of a plant for bonsai, you may have to do just that, get down on your hands and knees!

If you have the opportunity to go with a bonsai club, do it.

Many bonsai people work on their plants while still in nursery containers. Look closely, David Chauvin also trimmed the top of the nursery container to better see the juniper trunk. David's experience is obvious, beautiful work!

Where To Start?

Now that you have a plant and you know, for sure, it's the right time of the year to work on it, get started. Although there are many styles of bonsai, for purposes of this article, we will be considering an upright tree. Also, wire is often used on a first bonsai, it will not be discussed here.

Whether you are working with nursery plants, trees you dug out of the ground or an ugly bonsai you received as a gift, turn and tilt the plant until you find which position is best and where you think the front is.

Yes, every bonsai has a front. How do you know where the front is? It should not lean away from you, and should have no forward pointing branches, "eye-pokers." (Later you may change your mind about the front, but you need a place to start.)

Style your bonsai from the bottom up!

Nebari- (exposed rootage)- where the trunk goes into the soil, can help determine the actual style, height and/or even where a first branch will be.

Although certainly not necessary to learn Japanese, some bonsai words in Japanese make meanings very clear. Nebari is one of those words. It easily describes spreading roots above ground, buttressing, surface roots, root flare etc. Good nebari helps make a bonsai look older and enhances the overall beauty of a tree.

If it isn't showing already, determine if there are flared roots and/or additional taper under the soil line. As a bonsai artist, it is important to expose it! Surprises may appear within the first few minutes of brushing or lightly raking.

When working with nursery stock, it is especially important to initially clear away the loose topsoil and many times old fertilizer. It's possible to increase the overall height of a tree by several inches, just be removing this excess soil. Exposing these roots may even change your mind about where the front is!

The Azalea naturally forms beautiful nebari.

Two Ways to Find the Top

1. Finding the Top through Taper

Taper is an important aspect of good bonsai and an excellent way to determine the top of a tree. In the beginning, upright trees are easiest to work with.

When styling an upright bonsai, the nursery subject often loses the trunk taper at some point and continues at the same diameter for the remainder of the height. Watch the taper in that straight line. When the taper ends you are probably near or just past where the top of the tree should be.

In subjects with a lot of movement, the distance between curves should get shorter and shorter and hopefully narrower and narrower with each turn. Where it does not, you may have reached a good point to create the top or apex.

2. Finding the Top Using 'the Rule of Thirds'

In basic bonsai lessons many of us learned the 'Rule of Thirds.' In the "perfect" bonsai, the first third is the trunk and exposed rootage (nebari.) It stops where the first branch appears, the second third includes branch structure. The other third is considered the top.

With this in mind, once you determine where the first branch is, you will know approximately where the top should be. Do this by mentally adding two thirds above the first branch. Cover anything above that imaginary line with a "magic cloth."

It may be a little taller or shorter, but this is another excellent guideline for finding the top. Do not bother use a measuring tape, thirds can be approximate!

(As shown here, you can also use the magic cloth to "remove" a branch to see what it looks like, before you cut.)


Once the first branch, usually the thickest, is determined, branches should continue to be somewhat smaller and closer together as they go up the tree. Whenever possible, alternating are best, not opposite. The graphic shown here with the magic cloth, shows nice branch placement.

Front and back branches are shorter than side branches, they give depth. Do not make the mistake of leaving them out!

Root Pruning

Root pruning techniques vary greatly with species, size of plant and time of year. Some can be severely cut, others not! You may have heard the guideline to "take off one third." That may or may not be true depending on the plant, where you live and time of year.

As an extreme example, a Ficus bonsai tree being root pruned in the tropics, most likely could have three quarters of the roots pruned with no problem. Most plants will not tolerate such heavy pruning!

Root pruning is best NOT learned from experience ... ask experts in your area.

Bonsai Soil

Read this for important information about Bonsai Soil.

Bonsai Pots

Bonsai Pots should be your last concern when working on your first tree. Don't be too anxious. Sometimes plants remain in training pots such as cut down nursery pots, plastic or Mica a year or more before going into a "real" bonsai container.

If you decide you can't wait, consider an inexpensive one for starters. You will be changing it many times as your bonsai develops.

Never cut roots to fit a bonsai pot, unless you are positive it won't kill your tree!

No Rules

These guidelines are meant to be just that, they are not RULES. (As lengthy as this article is, it is far from complete.)

The more bonsai you create, the more you will learn about plants and which ones are best for you. The best way to learn bonsai is from experience. Some of the best experience may come from others. Hopefully, you can find a club or good teacher near you.

Something a Little Easier?

If you only want one bonsai, or want an easier start, I highly recommend what many bonsai dealers call “pre-bonsai.”

They are plants that someone else discovered as having good bonsai potential. They should be more than a nursery plant, already be slightly trimmed, nebari possibly exposed and/or root pruned to get you started!

Before you buy pre-bonsai, ask what has been done. For more expensive pieces, insist on a picture of the exact tree you will receive.

Bonsai Mary Gets Mail

The very first bonsai newsletters I ever sent were typed (as with a typewriter,) cut and pasted at the dining room table, folded, sealed, stamped and then mailed via US mail.

It still amazes me just how far and fast we can reach through the internet! Imagine how thrilled I was to receive the following email from a city I had never heard of, and for sure couldn't pronounce.

Sunil P
Thalawathugoda (City)
Western Prov
Sri Lanka

I am an absolute beginner to this art form. I hope I can learn from your experience and knowledge. I have looked at many sites and find your site very lucid.

Other than congratulations, the 'Stuff' Article received the most comments from last months Bonsai Banter. These were two of my favorites.

Mike S.
On Facebook

Rereading the ‘stuff’ article was a reminder, we all need to look through our collections and cull the ‘stuff’ out.
What better way to do that than to participate in your local club auction or raffle. As they say, “
One man’s ‘stuff’, is another man’s next masterpiece!”

Carol ST
Leicester, UK

How very true your "Stuff" article is. We moved to a house out of the locality and great concern was how do we move all the bonsai (approx 70 trees) of varying size. Currently in UK we are experiencing the hottest summer since 1976 with no rainfall and have struggled to keep the trees going in spite of watering. There was just no permanent shade in the garden as the sun moved round and crisped the foliage on all the deciduous trees.

Two things happened: Most mame and smaller shohin were lost and had to be tossed. The conifers and larger shohin plus those growing on in the ground, were surviving with half green/brown leaves. So we erected an extremely large sun shade and moved the trees suffering most under its shade. Pulled off all the crisped leaves, pruned back growing out branches and foliar fed with fish emulsion -although some trees lost all their foliage. Lo and behold, we have new growth sprouting. Nature is a wonderful thing when it comes to survival.

So, although we have lost quite a few trees, we are now reduced to a manageable number for our house move and, like Mary, have learned a lesson about having "stuff" and keeping control.

Until Next Month

It's still very hot in most of the Northern hemisphere. However, it is August, and Fall isn't that far away.

Get those summer jobs done. Remember, nursery and yard clean-up is much easier when the water out of the hose isn't freezing!

If you're still repotting tropicals outside of the tropics, you're just about out of time! Maybe you need to make the greenhouse ready for that inevitable first frost?

I welcome your emails. Although not all are published here, I do answer them personally.

Mary Miller

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