Bonsai Lessons for Beginners

Part 15 of a series by Eugene Howell

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Ficus BonsaiIn the previous post we began the discussion of how to start a bonsai by first identifying where the front of your new bonsai will be. The front of a bonsai tree is defined as the side of the tree you want to have facing the viewer when your finished bonsai is on display. By determining where the front is, you’ll then be able to perform the tree’s first styling. We learned that the root flair gives the first indication of where the front may be. We also learned that if the roots don’t fulfill this mission then we next look at the trunk. In today’s bonsai lessons for beginners, we’ll find out how the trunk can help us find the front the bonsai tree.

The characteristic that most people observe first about a bonsai tree is the trunk’s movement, meaning the trunk’s curves and twists. Observe your tree from all sides and decide which view provides the most interesting curves and twists. This will likely turn out to be the front, but there are a few more considerations that need to be made before the final decision such as large unsightly scars or if there’s any reverse taper which is always unwanted in a bonsai. If your tree has any of these you may need to select a different front that helps to hide those blemishes.

Having decided which view is the most interesting, now look for taper in the trunk. The term “taper” means that the trunk gradually and continuously gets thinner and thinner as you go up the trunk. If it does, great, you’ve likely found the front. If it doesn’t, then you are now faced with making your first decision on what and where to prune.

It’s important for the trunk to have taper, because it’s on of the main characteristics that makes a bonsai look like a bonsai instead of just a potted plant. So looking at your tree’s trunk, pick out a path up the tree that will give you good taper. This can sometimes involve having to look beyond where the present trunk-line is and instead, picking out a major branch that can become part of the future trunk and provide a new apex. The idea here is that the branch has a smaller girth than does the trunk, so if the entire top of the tree is cut away, then the trunk-line now goes out to this remaining branch. And because it’s thinner than the trunk, the trunk will now show taper at the spot where the branch becomes the trunk.

If this branch itself doesn’t also have sufficient taper, the process can be repeated further up the branch so that the new trunk-line now moves onto an even smaller branch. Thus with your first one or two cuts, you’ve given taper to your bonsai.

There are several other considerations that need to be made when selecting the branch which is to become the new trunk-line. The primary one is to observe the direction in which the branch points. It should be in harmony with the remainder of the trunk. If you want to add movement to the trunk while adding taper, then select a branch that moves in a slightly different direction from the trunk.

Now that you know where the front of the tree is, mark it by sticking a short piece of bonsai wire upright into the soil. As you begin pruning branches, changing the tree’s appearance, you’ll be amazed at how easy it is to lose sight of where the front was. Keeping it clearly marked will prevent you from pruning off branches you actually need.

While facing the front of the tree, starting at the base of the trunk and going upward, decide where the number 1 branch is. It should be between 1/3 and ½ the way up the trunk. It should point either to the right or left but not toward the front or back. Ideally the first two branches will point toward your right and left (in either order). Tie a small piece of string around your number 1 branch to mark it. Here again, it’s easy to prune it off and then realize to late what you’ve just done. Next, on the opposite side of the tree, pick out the number 2 branch. It should be a short distance further up the tree than is the number 1 branch. Mark this branch and then a short distance above it, on the back side of the tree; find your number 3 branch. Continue this process until you are within the top 20% of the trunk. As you do this, the distance between selected branches should be getting smaller and the branches themselves should be getting thinner. In nature, thick branches grow on the lower part of a tree and are further apart than those near the top. Once you reach the top 20% of the trunk you can select branches that are on all sides of the tree.

Notice that during this procedure we didn’t select any branches on the front of the tree until we reached the top 20% of the trunk. This is another rule in bonsai handed down through history by Japanese masters. The reason for this rule is that a person viewing the bonsai tree should be able to see the trunk all the way from soil level up to the top 20% of tree. If there were branches on the front side, the leaves on these branches would prevent an uninterrupted view of the trunk.

Having marked the first 4 or 5 branches, you can remove all other branches that aren’t needed.

Congratulations! What you now have in front of you is a bonsai that’s received its first styling. The critical branches are all that remain on the trunk and you’ve done the job that you originally had no idea how to start. It wasn’t so bad after all.

However, there are still two more jobs remaining before the tree is completely styled, branch pinching and wiring. These will be discussed in the next two posts.

Part 14 of this series : Part 16 of this series

Photo credit: flickr Creative Common. Bonsai by tony Atler