How To Start A Bonsai Tree

Part 14 of a series by Eugene Howell

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Bonsai ExpoYou’re a newcomer to bonsai, you’ve joined a club and attend meetings, you’ve looked through bonsai books and magazines, you’ve even attended bonsai demonstrations and yet despite all of this, when you look at your tree you don’t have the slightest idea where to begin or how to style it. Added to this is the fear that whatever you do might be wrong and may ruin it.

But things are not as bad as they seem and the art of bonsai is meant to be an enjoyment rather than a stressful anxiety. The first thing you need to get over is fear. Almost any mistake can be corrected with time and planning. There are obvious exceptions to that statement, but assuming you have a tree that’s merely a pre-bonsai there’s no need to worry about ruining it when it isn’t yet even a finished bonsai.

However, a common fear for beginning bonsai artists is that they might kill their tree. You may very well do so, but so what. Get yourself another plant and try again. There is a saying in bonsai that goes something like: “If you haven’t killed some trees, you haven’t yet grown as a bonsai artist”. By avoiding things you worry may kill a tree, you never learn the limits of what can be done to a bonsai without killing it. I’d hate to tell you how many trees I’ve killed over the years. I managed to kill three just last year alone. But in each case I learned something that will be of value in the future.

How to Start a Bonsai Tree

OK, your jittery nerves are settled and you’re ready to tackle the styling job. So what comes first? The very first thing to do when styling a raw tree for the first time is to examine the base of the tree to see if there is any good nebari (flair where the roots join the trunk). This is when you’ll determine where the front of the tree is going to be. You’ll probably have to brush away the soil from around the bottom of the trunk to expose the top of the roots. Nurserymen nearly always plant their stock too deep in pots, so don’t hesitate to pull away a lot of soil.

I’m frequently surprised at how nice the flair is an inch below the soil surface. If you’re lucky, you’ll find that there’s an even distribution of large roots all the way around the base of the trunk. If so, you’ll have plenty of options for selecting the tree’s front and will have greater freedom in the selection by being able to rely on other characteristics elsewhere on the tree.

However, if the root distribution is not equal around the trunk, then the roots system alone may be the determining factor for where the front of the tree needs to be. For example, if there is a large surface root on the right side of the trunk and none on the left, then that view will look awkward and unbalanced. By rotating the tree you might find that having that large surface root coming toward the viewer shows a nicer balance. Thus you may have found the “front” of the tree.

In many cases you may find that there are no strong roots radiating outward from the base of the trunk, in which case you move on to other methods for selecting the front such as examining the trunk. The trunk can provide a good indication of where the front should be.

In the next post we’ll talk about the trunk, its movement, apex and branch selection.

Part 13 of this series : Part 15 of this series

Photo credit: flickr Creative Commons, Bonsai EXPO – Enghien by Dominique Bruyneel