At this point in the game of learning bonsai things can become tricky. You bought your plant, know how to keep it alive, and now you need to take it from an ordinary nursery plant to something extraordinary. There are an infinite number of “next steps” that we could potentially discuss. There are the mechanics of styling (wiring, pruning, shaping, bending, etc…) and there are the artistic elements of styling (planting style, natural vs. creative, element ratios, pot selection, etc…). Ultimately I think that the major folly of most people starting out in bonsai is the attempt to learn the artistic elements or the advanced mechanical elements without first mastering the basics. For this reason I’m going to discuss these first steps in the most straight-forward and basic way possible.
Get Off the Pot
I want to start with what I believe is the biggest mistake made by amateurs of all levels of ability. Potting TOO SOON. In the bigger picture of bonsai, from untrained tree to refined masterpiece, the last step is putting the tree in its pot. The reason behind this is that small bonsai containers may make the trees stand out, but they also restrict the trees growth. Ideally a tree should be in the maintenance stage of it’s life, where the only procedures being performed on the tree are done to maintain it’s shape and vigor, before you pot it. If our plan is to grow any new branches, encourage refinement of the delicate branch structure, or anything else that requires strong growth, then a bonsai pot is not for us. In order to get the maximum results from our growing techniques, we must have a tree that is vigorous and at a maximum of health. The simple fact is that bonsai pots are not ideal from a growing perspective. Obviously bonsai in their pots still grow. They will grow vigorously if you’re doing things right, but if your choice is between styling your tree and putting it in a new pot, styling should always come first.
You should never re-pot your tree when you first purchase it. Re-potting weakens a tree and if you’re about to do some strenuous work on it, that’s the last thing you want. But there’s also another reason you should never re-pot it. Even if you buy a perfect tree that you consider to be in it’s maintenance phase and will need no further work in the near future, you have no guarantee as to when the last re-potting was performed on the tree. It could have been two years ago, or one year ago, or even yesterday! If you’re at a reputable nursery I suppose you could just ask, but even then, it’s a good idea to wait and let your tree get adjusted to it’s new environment. Just be patient and re-pot the following year.
I think that elimination is one of the most crucial processes that amateurs can benefit from and yet it is the one that is often not discussed. I came to realize after some trial and error that bonsai is not like any other art form. If you are a painter, you start with a blank canvas. If you are a sculptor you begin with a block and chip away at what you don’t need until you have your masterpiece. Bonsai is really closer to sculpting than anything else because it is (at least initially) the art of creating by removing. You’re creating your art by removing and molding what you started with. However, bonsai is unique in that unlike the sculptor who starts with a blank block, you have to re-imagine or remodel something that has already been partially sculpted.
This is strikingly more difficult because it narrows your options. Soon you will come to embrace this difference. You will not be able to make the tree anything you want, rather you have to get really good at making the tree what it wants to be. In other words, it quickly becomes evident that bonsai is a series of decisions about how to utilize the elements of a single tree in the best possible manner. You cannot force the tree to grow a branch where you want it. Yes, you could graft it, but let’s not forget our purpose. We’re going to go about bonsai from a fundamental approach. You have to learn to walk before you can run. In the kitchen you start as a prep cook, you peel potatoes, onions and carrots. You wash each batch of Morel mushrooms 5 times to get all the dirt (and critters) out. You spend your first days agonizing over making each head of cauliflower exactly the same size. You don’t start making dishes until you can do the basics on auto pilot and you won’t even acknowledge that grafting exists until you can bonsai without it. Once you get your tree clean you can go about employing the elimination method to guide your first decisions.
The first thing we do with any tree when we’re getting ready to evaluate and style it is to clean it up. The process is simple, we scrub over the entire surface of the bark with a toothbrush lightly dipped in water. Obviously you want to avoid delicate areas like buds, fine branches, and fresh leaves. The majority of the trunk and main branches should be scrubbed free of moss, green algae, and any of the other gunk trees tend to collect sitting around the nursery. There are two main reasons we want to remove this type of material from the tree. First, it is simply unsightly and dulls the tree’s appearance. If your tree is covered in that green powdery looking algae, you can’t see the subtle colors and textures of the bark. Remember, bonsai is all about highlighting the interesting and positive features of your tree, algae and moss are not a feature of your tree.
The second reason cleaning is important is that things like algae and especially moss are great at retaining moisture. You can imagine how a prolonged state of dampness against your bark could very easily turn into rot in your wood and encourage bugs to come for a meal. True, there are a great many ancient trees with moss clinging to the bark and roots. In these cases the moss definitely adds something to the aesthetic as a whole. In certain cases, allowing the growth of moss to certain areas of the trunk can definitely improve the overall look of the tree. But it should be taken seriously to limit this as it absolutely encourages many of the types of things you don’t want on your tree. Trunk moss is a consideration only in the refining state of your tree. For now, get rid of it.
A final task in the cleaning phase is uncovering the Nebari. A great deal of nursery trees can have 1 or 2 inches of their trunks buried in the soil. Use your hands to gently dig down in the soil around the trunk until you start to find some of the larger roots. At this point you can choose which roots look nice (that you will leave uncovered) and the ones which do not look as nice (which you can cover back up).
The next step in our process is evaluation of the branches and foliage, and the beginning of styling. It deserves a lengthy post to its self which I will provide shortly. In the mean time, if you are perhaps styling your tree right along with me, take a moment to breath it all in. Look over your tree and remove any dead branches or leaves. Your tree should be clean and ready. Study the shape of the foliage, the placement of the current branches and which sections of foliage they are responsible for, and pay special attention to the shape of the trunk. Think about what this tree could look like. The question to ask yourself now and all through styling is: What can I do to this tree to maximize it’s potential?