Ten Steps to Good Bonsai

These “Ten Steps to Good Bonsai” are about creating a better collection. The steps are divided into two parts.

The first five steps are best applied before acquiring a tree.  However, they are still valid when refining or purging a collection.   Steps six through ten are ongoing.

At the end, I have included a few miscellaneous but important notes. These steps may be new thoughts for novices, but for good bonsai, hopefully they serve as reminders to others.

Part I
Selecting a Tree

1.  Tree Choices  -  Use proven species as bonsai subjects.  Let someone else try weird and strange trees from other zones.  If you want to experiment, try plants from your area that others may have passed by.   First, ask around.  There may be a good reason that a plant is not being used.

Small leaves, small flowers and/or proportionate fruit are standard guidelines. Use them.  There are some exceptions. Seagrape, for example, has proven to be an easy-to-reduce large leaf subject, especially in warm climates. 

2.  Branching and Taper - When creating your own tree, lots of branches mean lots of choices, that’s good.  If you are purchasing a “finished” bonsai, major branches should already be where they belong. 

Taper in trunk and branches is a huge asset.  Taper is part of what gives a small “tree-look” to your bonsai.  Most of the time, you can tell how the taper will appear when mature, even in juvenile trees.

3.  Nebari - is a Japanese word.  It refers to the lower trunk and surface roots and is a major asset in designing a quality bonsai.  No matter how well you have placed the branches, no matter how old the plant is, without good "nebari” your tree will unlikely ever be considered a great bonsai.

4.  Size of Bonsai -  Select a tree that you can handle.  Very small trees (shohin) don’t take up much space.  However, they are more difficult to create as good bonsai and they require more attention . . . including frequent watering.  A medium size is one you can lift and works best for most people.

If you have ‘ready helpers,’ large trees may not be a problem. 

Be warned: friends, kids and other family members will quickly tire of hauling, lifting and helping you repot your huge masterpiece. These bonsai are often categorized as two-man and three-man trees for good reason. 

Large or small, place your bonsai at a comfortable height for working. (Smaller trees need to be higher.)  As in other art forms, the closer to eye level the easier to enjoy . . . and work.  

Bonsai kept at or near ground level are regularly neglected.

 5.  Make better investments  - Whether shopping for starters or old trees, buy better material.  Good bonsai subjects are often costly . . . because someone else has put in the time, knowledge and money!
Judge the tree by the guidelines above and remember, expensive does not necessarily mean better! Examine trees closely.  First appearances can be deceiving.  Review ''What to Look Forhere.

Beautiful flowers on a stick, albeit it a fat stick, never make a good bonsai.

Good health seems obvious, but sometimes sickly bargains cry out to be taken home.  When you start with a tree that already has problems, you are taking a risk. Your money and time is often wasted. 

'A Beginner's Goal'

Part II
Develop and Maintain

6. Understand Certainties - Expect your bonsai to change.   No bonsai ever stays the same!

If you have done Steps 1-5 properly, the changes should be for the better. Watch for opportunities to have a new branch in a better location or perhaps remove an old one.

Be aware of exposed roots headed in the wrong direction.  
Eliminate criss-crossing roots early on!

Another certainty is weeds. Weeds will appear and must be removed including roots.   Don’t even think about weed killers (e.g. Roundup) in containers. Many people have found pre-emergents helpful.  Always read instructions fully. 

7. Trim, Trim, Trim. No excuses. It is important to keep your trees trimmed.

Learn how to directional prune! If you’re not sure where to cut ... at least “hedge prune.”     (Next time you walk by a hedge, observe how dense the branches are.)  This type of pruning will give you many options when you are ready to prune more appropriately.

8. Wire - Learn to wire properly. If you are likely to forget to remove wire, consider “tie-downs.”  

Not quite as perfect for placement, but certainly better than nothing. If done right, “tie-downs” can be an easy way to get a branch started in the right direction.

Eventually, to have fine bonsai, you will have to wire!  Remove wire before damage ruins an otherwise good tree.  Don’t be the one that everyone looks at your bonsai and says:    “Beautiful but ...”   Yes, we will see the scars.

9. Roots - Get to know your tree’s root system. Some trees prefer to have somewhat “tight feet” (juniper for one). 

Others, such as Fukien Tea, decline if kept in a root-bound condition. Ask experienced people for advice.  What time of year to prune?   How often?  Should you comb out the roots?  What about sawing the root mass?    Not all plants are the same.

Ficus roots being trimmed

10. Refine Your Collection - At least once a year, give your collection a serious critique.  If you can’t be honest, hire someone to do it for you.

Sort out any trees you no longer love and ones that have no future.  (Best done around club auction time.)  Don’t worry about“getting your money back”.  If they gave you pleasure and hopefully many lessons, you got your money’s worth.

Additional Good Bonsai Tips

Nourish your trees frequently.   Follow instructions on any fertilizer package for “outdoor potted plants” or "indoor potted plants" (depending on your collection).  No need to get creative by diluting and/or changing the timing.

The ‘perfect soil’ is the one that works for you. Take advice from growers in your area. However, do not transplant your trees every time someone has a new idea.

Don't begin by creating forests. They're more difficult than they look.

When styling or changing a shape use your ‘Magic Cloth'. You may be surprised at just how helpful it is in creating good bonsai.

Where to Go From Here

Click here for more great bonsai tree tips!

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