How To Make a Bonsai Tree

An interview with Adam Lavigne

Adam Lavigne bonsaiBGP: Welcome to The Bonsai Garden Podcast, where the object is not to make the tree look like a bonsai, but to make the bonsai look like a tree.

Click the play button above to Listen to the episode.

Hi I’m Gary Howell and this is episode number one of the bonsai garden podcast. Today I’m really excited to have Adam Lavigne as my guest. He’s a very talented bonsai artist from Orlando Florida, who has taught numerous bonsai demonstrations. So, Adam welcome to The Bonsai Garden Podcast.

How to make a bonsai tree“Well thanks for having me.”

BGP: Sure. You’re a painter, a sculptor and a musician but how did you get involved in the art of bonsai?

“Well, I’m originally from Massachusetts and I moved to Florida, and Florida grows. It grows a lot. So, I kinda got into doing gardening in my backyard. And then as a visual artist, the gardening turned into bonsai. I bought a Juniper at a Sam’s Club and had it for a couple of years. Its unfortunately dead, but I actually have a cutting from it that’s still alive that is now a nice little cascading shohin Juniper.”

BGP: Huh, that’s cool. What types of trees do you normally work with?

“Well being in Florida I work with a lot of tropical trees like the Ficus and Brazilian Rain Tree and you have to really do a juniper. You can’t get past that. I have a couple of Black Pines, Trident Maples, Elms, you know, I grow quite a bit of trees. And of course there’s that zone envy thing that we have where I can’t grow Japanese Maples, which I would really love to grow those here. They grow quick and they develop really well.”

BGP: Yeah. But the winters aren’t cold enough, right? Is that why?

“Yes, they don’t have enough of a dormant period and they just use up all of their sugar reserves and they just fizzle out and slowly die.”

BGP: Yeah. That’s too bad.

“It’s the same thing with White Pine, here in Florida.”

BGP: How do you find trees to use as bonsai?

“I go over the entire state of Florida looking for trees. I like to have unique trees and specimen trees, and I go everywhere from WalMart to big bonsai nurseries like down to Erik Wigert’s or up to Jason Schley’s. I just pour over the nurseries just looking for the trees with big bases or interesting movement or shapes or dead wood.”

Adam Lavigne bonsai 4BGP: When you go out and look for these trees, do you have some particular shape in mind, or do you just like whatever strikes your fancy?

“Well, the first thing I look for in any tree is always the root base, you know, it’s what we call the nebari. A fat, wide root base is really what defines what we’re trying to do in bonsai is to make a little tree that’s probably not that old look like a big old gnarly tree. So, no matter what’s on top, unless it’s dead obviously, you want to find something that has a good base, and you start there. Always start there.”

BGP: For those who are new to bonsai, how long does it take to go from finding something in a nursery, just starting something, to having a bonsai that really looks good?

“Part of that is, tell me where you live. Unfortunately some things grow quick in some places than in other places. Here in Florida we have an extra growing season and I think the rest of the bonsai world is really jealous of that. But because we can’t grow those Japanese Maples and those White Pines, we’re jealous of those guys up there. But to answer the question let’s say we have a Ficus such as the Ficus Salicaria, which is what they are calling the Willow Leaf Ficus now. It’s a good tree to start with. A lot of people start with the Ficus Salicaria. If you have a good one with a good base, you could grow a decent canopy after the first initial styling and pruning. But to get a really good tree, I would say that the least that you have to work on it is three or four years.”

BGP: Well that doesn’t seem like very long. I know, I’ve talked to a lot of novice people who feel like, “ohh, that would take forever” But no, just three or four years. That’s not long at all.

“Well we’re talking Ficus as well. If you have a Juniper, you do an initial styling and then you let that grow out for an entire year. Then the next year you take that off and do another styling then you let that grow out an entire year. In the third year you might re-pot it into a suitable bonsai pot and let it grow without doing styling. The fourth year you could do another styling and then the fifth year perhaps you start doing detail work on it. So a Juniper, which is one of the more traditional bonsai subjects, takes a lot longer and it’s harder to do than a ficus that you could just let grow. Once you really get into it, a ficus is really hard to keep up with.”

Adam Lavigne bonsai 5BGP: Can you talk about the various steps required to make a tree look small? For the beginner who’s listening to this podcast and is just being introduced to bonsai, the first question they may ask about how to make a bonsai tree is “How do you make it look so small?”

“To make a tree look small it’s almost like trickery, it’s an illusion. We could be called magicians. Inside each of our brains is an idea of what a tree looks like. So when we walk up to a tree that’s growing in the ground, the first thing we do is look up at it. Starting at the base where we have a nice strong root spread going into the ground, and then you look up. When you look up at a tree you get like the railroad tracks going off into infinity. You start at a big base and it goes up to a point. One of the visual steps…visual tricks that we use for bonsai and that’s what we call taper. We start with a big base and it tapers to a point. The second thing, I alluded to it, you walk up to the tree and you look up at it.”

“So if we create a tree, as it sits in the pot, and we tilt it towards the viewer slightly, it give that viewer a feeling in their mind that the tree is looming over the top of them, even though it may only be six or twelve inches tall. It makes it appear, inside your brain, that it’s taller than it is. The third thing, we use proportions. There’s all kinds of mathematical….the golden means, and the futanashi secrets and stuff like that. To break it all down very simply the branches that are lower to the ground should be thicker, and as you go up the tree the interval between the branches should get shorter and shorter. And that’s that proportion thing where it’s almost the same thing as the railroad track. A railroad track has the ties. As the railroad track goes further away, the ties look like their closer and closer together. So if you make the branches get closer and closer together, and then at the top you have a cluster of branches, it forces a perspective on us as though that tree is bigger than it is.”

“And then the last thing is the pot. A lot of people think we put our bonsai into little pots to make them grow slower or to stunt their growth. It’s actually to make the tree appear bigger than it is. Say you have a pot that’s only an inch tall, but you have the root base of a tree in it that’s two inches thick, it makes that two inch thick root base appear very much larger in a small pot than it would in a large pot.”

BGP: That’s really amazing that it’s not all just in the way that we trim the tree and prune the leaves. It’s almost like psychology that you’re working in there to make the person think something that maybe they otherwise wouldn’t if they just saw a little twig growing out of the ground.

“Exactly, that’s the way all artisans are. We trick the mind into thinking one way, or a particular piece of music make your blood rush and makes you excited or a painting evokes a summer scene, or even food…you have certain smells that evoke memories. That’s why chefs are artists. Good chefs are true artists. And that’s the one thing about being an artist, when you get into that zone and you can create a scene or an image or bring back a memory of when you were a child running forest and bumping into an old gnarly, hollowed out trunk and look up at it you’re scared because it’s all gnarly. That’s what I try to do as a bonsai artist.”

BGP: On your website,, you mentioned that bonsai clubs can book you for demonstrations. So, what do you normally do during your presentations?

“Well, I tell a lot of bad jokes, because were dealing with trees and limbs and pieces of wood, there are several jokes that I tell that are…the louder the groan from the audience, the better the joke is. Part of it depends on what kind of demonstration I’m doing. I do carving to try to make old dead wood look older. If I’m talking about that, it’s really technical and I talk about the tools a lot. It it’s a simple styling, I’ll talk about the particular species of tree, what I do to it to grow it, to keep it alive and to keep it healthy. I talk a lot about the styling.”

“What I like to do is to try to pick out the beginners and I talk to them a lot. I don’t try to use a lot of the jargon that we as bonsai people use. I don’t talk about the uro being to close to the nebari on the kenggi mumji. That’s the hole in the trunk being to close to the bottom of the tree. And I think that’s it’s a disservice when some bonsai artists keep spouting off stuff and they make themselves appear more knowledgeable than they need be. I don’t like jargon. I like to talk in plain English. That is until you read my blog and then I have those 25¢ words that I put in. But I try to give a full demonstration, I try to make people laugh, I try to inform them and I try to give them a good tree. Because it’s ultimately…they may…they’ll try to forget the jokes….bad memories stay with you for a long time, so try to forget the jokes. But that tree is what is left over for them to remember me by, so I try to give them a good tree.”

BGP: I’ve often thought that if someone really wants to learn and become good at bonsai, it’s important to join some kind of bonsai club. What do you think?

“I think that, to have a tree that will not just survive but to thrive and to continue to develop, it’s almost essential to join a club. The most important reason why is that the particular climate that you live in is not going to be reflected in any book or any website that you might read.”

“That’s one thing that I talk about in my blog all the time. I always mention that I’m in zone 8ab in Florida in the United States, and this is what I do at this time. But if you’re up in Massachusetts, you don’t do this at this time. This is the beginning of September and I’m still chopping back ficus roots and tops and putting them into training pots. But if your in Massachusetts, you should have stopped that at the beginning of August.”

“These are the things you learn in bonsai clubs. You learn what soil might work best. You learn what species might work best and you learn what time of year is best to cut this branch or to carve this branch or to wire this branch. To repot or not to repot. To water heavily or to let it go dry. Any book, no matter who’s book it is or whatever website, or blog, those are guidelines that you loosely can follow but you don’t do. I’ll give you an example for Florida. Robert Kempinski who is involved in bonsai clubs international. He was the president at one point. He needle plucks and candle prunes his black pine at this time of the year, at the end of August. Every where else they did it in June. Hopefully we can get Rob to put out his black pine book for us, so that we can grow black pine better.”

BGP: Having been to a few bonsai conventions in Florida, one thing I’ve noticed is that some bonsai artists create really large bonsai. And by large, I mean a bonsai that’s two or more feet tall and might require two people to pick up. So is there any advantage to creating a large bonsai as opposed to one that can fit in your hand?

“There are advantages and there are disadvantages to that. Lower back pain is one. If it’s a tropical tree it’s harder to protect large bonsai in the winter time here. And I know the rest of you are talking about winter in Florida, but we do have a couple of below freezing days and it doesn’t matter to a ficus if it’s warm one day and warm the second day, that one day that it’s below freezing, it kills your ficus, no matter how big or small it is.”

“The advantage is that it’s easier to have a big tree. It’s less of strain trying to get the proportions correct when you’re showing a big tree as opposed to a small tree. But a small tree, of course, is very delicate to work on. You’re trying to wire tiny little branches and put them in the right spot while on a big tree you use bigger wire and it is easier to grow a bigger tree, until you have to move it. That’s why they talk about trees in Japan…they talk about a one person tree or a two person tree or a three person tree…there are such things as twelve people trees as well.”

BGP: Yeah, I was at a convention where the bonsai right at the entrance of the convention was brought in on a fork lift.

“Yeah, there are big trees out there. My friend Erik Wigert, he likes to collect big trees. I’ve gone with him before when we’ve had to pick them up and it’s not easy.”

BGP: Well, tell us about your two most favorite trees from your own collection. And why they are your favorite.

“Well it’s tough to pick favorite trees. I tend to have a favorite tree as I work on them. It’s as though I put all my attention on that one tree that I’m working on and it becomes my favorite. Some of the species that are my favorite…one is a Florida native, it’s called ilex Vomitoria Shillings Dwarf. I’ve never been able to figure out who Mr. Schillings is. I’ll probably have to go back in an old book or something like that, because on the internet there’s no information about the word Schillings. But it’s a native tree and most people in Florida will see them in landscaping. They are similar to what a box wood looks like, and they are the meatballs of the landscape world. When you think of landscapes, you have cones and trees with weeping tops and meatballs. They are a foundation plant. But they work really well as bonsai because as a little shrub, you can trim it and it grows back quickly. Plus they have little leaves.”

“So, Illex schillings, and then I kinda go back and forth between ficus and Chinese Elm, and that just depends on the time of the year. So I have a Chinese Elm it’s almost a part of Florida but it’s from China and South East Asia. It has small leaves, it responds really well to pruning and you can wire them…very…bigger branches you can still wire. Then any of the ficus, Ficus Salicaria is one of my favorite. Ficus Microcarpa, any of the variety of those, whether it be Retusa, or Green Island, Golden Coin or Golden Gate or Tiger Bark, there are endless varieties of those. So, I suppose I could walk out into my garden and pick two or three that are my favorites, but then when the season changes, I’ll probably pick two or three more.”

BGP: Well, one last question. Plastic pots vs ceramic, what’s your opinion?

“Well, I think it has to do a lot with the development of the tree and its stage of development. plastic bonsai pots, early on in the development of the tree, have their advantages. I do use a lot of plastic pots in training, they tend to be a little deeper and lighter to pick up for those who might be more physically challenged. They don’t break when the cats knock them off the benches or when the children knock them off the benches. I have four children and three cats. But a ceramic pot has a lot more variety in what they look like and the emotion it might evoke or the color that it might lend to a particular composition of a tree. Or the shapes….being ceramic, it’s clay and you can shape the clay a lot better than an injection molded plastic pot. So most of my finished trees are in ceramic pots.”

“It’s something where you can never have to many pots. Sometimes you don’t have the right pot and you just have to collect them. So, to all those people out there who try to get rid of pots, we don’t have to water a pot or feed or worry about the cold or heat. You can just let it sit there and it will be there for you when it’s the time that you have that tree.”

“When you go to yard sales or thrift stores buy that pot that’s sitting there because it might just be the only pot that you have at that one particular time when you need it.”

BGP: Well that’s all we have time for today but I want to thank you for coming on to The Bonsai Garden Podcast.

“I appreciate you asking me.”