At this year’s bonsai show the Cleveland Bonsai Club is going to have a table dedicated to pre-bonsai to show the various stages of bonsai creation. So what is pre-bonsai?
In its simplest form, bonsai translates to “planted in a tray” but you wouldn’t call an herb garden in a shallow pot a bonsai! A good working definition comes from Stephen Orr in The New York Times, “the term should be reserved for plants that are grown in shallow containers following the precise tenets of bonsai pruning and training, resulting in an artful miniature replica of a full-grown tree in nature.”
Of course, bonsai don’t just spring up as mature, dwarfed trees. It can take months, years, or even decades for a tree to reach the stage of refinement where it can truly be considered a bonsai.
There are basically three ways of reaching the final bonsai stage. The first is to grow a bonsai from a seed, cutting, or other propagation method. This is the slowest method and can take many decades to have a tree that resembles and ancient, wild tree. The second method is to collect a tree from the wild that already demonstrates many of the characteristics of a finished bonsai. Such trees may have been dwarfed by harsh climates, poor soil, or physical damage. Even these trees can often require many years to reach the refinement stage.
The most common method is to take a tree that has been growing in the landscape or nursery and cut it down into a smaller tree before beginning to refine the design. Some bonsai artists shop at the same garden centers as homeowners looking for bonsai candidates. Others shop at nurseries that specialize in producing plants intended to become a bonsai.
I’ve mentioned “refinement” several times, so what does that mean? It is extremely rare that even a “wild” bonsai (known as yamadori) are ready to be dug up and put into a bonsai pot as is. Most of them require additional work to shape into their final form, which is done by selective pruning and/or bending branches using wire. As they grow and make the transition into a final bonsai form they are referred to as being “in training” or in the “pre-bonsai” stage.
After months, years, or decades the tree will finally begin to resemble the final form the bonsai artist envisions. The tree trunk will have a decent thickness and has taken on an aged appearance. Strong branches will divide into secondary and tertiary branches. At this point the tree is ready for the design to be refined. Think of it as the finishing touches. Roots, trunk, branches and foliage are all the way the artist has envisioned and the tree is in a bonsai pot, tray, or other planting.
While a bonsai tree is never done growing, and thus never truly “finished,” it is only at this end stage that it can truly be referred to as a bonsai tree.
A few of the author’s pre-bonsai trees are shown here.
Are you interested in attending a meeting of the Cleveland Bonsai Club but aren’t sure what goes on? Well, it really depends on the meeting!
Some meetings will have a featured speaker on a particular topic. It could be about a style of tree, species, propagation technique, wiring, fertilizer, pretty much anything bonsai or bonsai related. One of the presentations this past winter was about Suiseki (stones).
Some meetings are basically mini-workshops. Attendees can bring any tree they want and work on it at the meeting while getting advice from other members. The pictures accompanying this article were taken at the June meeting. At this meeting, the new club website was unveiled and it was also a workshop. You can see some of the trees brought in to work on.
Anyone is welcome to attend any of the monthly member meetings so if you’re interested in learning more about bonsai feel free to stop in and introduce yourself! We are a good group of folks and welcoming to newcomers of any skill level. There is no cost to attend.
I’ve been interested in bonsai for over 25 years but only actually got involved less than a year ago. Like so many others it seemed daunting to me to get into the hobby. Sure, I bought the occasional bonsai tree at a department store or Amazon (derisively referred to as “mallsai” by many bonsai enthusiasts) but they all inevitably died. Now, ten months after taking my first beginner workshop, I have around 20 trees in various stages of development.
So, how do you get started if you’re interested in finding out if bonsai is the right hobby for you? There is no one right way but here are some things that helped me get started.
For me, the first step was the aforementioned beginner workshop. I had seen one several years ago at a local greenhouse but coudn’t attend so was waiting for the next one. The next one never came. Finally, I decided to take matters into my own hands and contacted the Cleveland Bonsai Club. One of their members, Dale Harder, responded and worked with me to put on a beginner workshop. I learned a lot and was immediately hooked. I had so much fun that I worked with Dale to host a second one the following year and I attended that one, too!
I acquired a few starter trees that first season but it was late in the year so there wasn’t much I could do before it was time to overwinter them. But, the winter did give me plenty of time to learn!
I bought several books off of Amazon (all out-of-print) and read them all cover to cover. Some were useful for the text, others were simply inspiring for the pictures. My selections were Sunset Bonsai Illustrated guide to an ancient art, BONSAI: The Art of Growing and Keeping Miniature Trees, Bonsai (A Care Manual), and The Living Art of Bonsai : Principles and Techniques of Cultivation and Propagation.
I watched a lot of videos on YouTube. As expected, some were better than others. My favorites were the ones put out by Ryan Neal of Bonsai Mirai. I really liked how he explained things and the level of detail he would give. I ended up learning so much from the free videos that I paid for a membership to be able to see more of them.
Earlier this year, I joined the Cleveland Bonsai club. The club is full of friendly, knowledgeable members and I’ve learned a lot from talking to them and watching them work. Some meetings have a theme and a presentation, some are field trips, and some are workshops. Each provides its own opportunity for expanding your skillset.
At the workshop I received a couple of beginner bonsai tools. Getting cheap tools is a good way to get started because you’re not out a lot of money if you decide it isn’t right for you. I was hooked immediately so I asked for and received a bunch of really nice mid-level tools for Christmas. I immediately noticed the difference in quality and I imagine the higher end tools are even better. But while they’re nice to have they aren’t really necessary. Many people get by with garden shears and pliers.
The last tip I’ll give was that I joined an online forum. There are many out there but I found my home at Bonsai Nut (look for Cable, that’s me!). While some of the members can be a little harsh to newbies that’s usually only when a beginner posts like a know-it-all. They even have a section of the forums dedicated to beginners (New to Bonsai) and I could ask the dumb beginner questions and get them patiently answered. You can post pictures to get help with identification, disease or pest issues, and get styling advice.
So, that’s how I got my start. If you’re a beginner like me hopefully some of that advice will help you get on your way. Most bonsai folks are passionate about the art and happy to get someone else hooked so don’t be afraid to ask questions!