With the rise of Internet discussion forums it is possible to read, if not participate, in a variety of discussion about bonsai. One discussion some time ago dealt with the possibility of doing bonsai without going broke financially. I was disappointed with the outcome of this particular discussion and I feel much information was left out, ignored or misrepresented.
So let’s look at some of the options someone getting into bonsai for the first time have at their disposal. Most if not all of the options offered to the beginner are either unrealistic or dead ends. The beginner, who it must be assumed is lacking in experience and knowledge, is easily led astray by misinformation or their own flawed imagination. It is not at all uncommon for many of these people to think that a bonsai is grown from special bonsai seed which brings us to the first of many pitfalls: The ubiquitous start from seed method.
I am surprised that even today a good many beginners are duped into the bonsai seed scam from the Internet or want ads found in the back of most garden magazines. It is true that bonsai can be grown from seed with some very good results if it is done right. However it takes a good deal of skill and talent to pull this off, something the beginner is not likely to posses in any great measure, not to mention years approaching ten before you see any substantial results.
The second is collecting from the wild. The term used today is Yamadori, a Japanese word designating collected from the mountain. This too can and does yield excellent results but again not without a good deal of skill and knowledge the beginner is not likely to posses. In fact failure is the usual outcome of this endeavor because most Yamadori do not respond to being removed from their natural environment the way the books seem to indicate they will; more on this latter.
Third is the bonsai nursery method. Here too there are many pit falls awaiting the unsuspecting beginner from over-priced material to unscrupulous vendors. It is an easy thing to suggest to a beginner that they find a good bonsai nursery and buy some good stock to work with from the beginning. This is good advice but up front has two major drawbacks.
The obvious is finding a Bonsai Nursery, not even assuming GOOD, within some reasonable distance from the interested individual. Sadly bonsai nurseries are not found on every corner. Very few normal every day nurseries will have a bonsai section and the ones that do are not always guaranteed to be first rate or even knowledgeable. Even some major metropolitan areas will not have one, good, bad or mediocre.
Second is defining what good stock is. For a beginner good stock could be anything that does not look like a ham sandwich. Sadly for others, anything that does look like a ham sandwich will do. Someone just starting in bonsai has a picture in their mind about what a bonsai should look like but not a clue how that image was created and what it started out like.
The simple truth is that the beginner does not know what good stock is and would probably not recognize it if it bit him or her. This of course leaves the problems of buying sight unseen; the proverbial pig in a poke, mail order bride syndrome. This is often suggested by on-line mavens as a reliable source but leaves the issues of selection in the hands of a third party, trusted I hope, and does little in the way of educating the novice in the issues of stock selection. Too often on line buyers will purchase material that is too difficult for them on a care level. Knowing little, some buyers will purchase a Pine or a Juniper tree and kill it by keeping it indoors. Some buyers will buy material that may be good for bonsai in the hands of an experienced seasoned grower but will not develop as hoped without the kind of care and treatment necessary to make them work. Others will purchase a species of tree that they have seen in a book not understanding that even advanced growers find this species difficult.
By far the easiest and lest expensive is your friendly, or at least available, neighborhood nursery. The odd thing is that this is the most maligned source for bonsai material and considered a pariah by many who consider themselves advanced bonsai growers. The typical landscape nursery is viewed as a second rate source for material to be avoided like a ripe honey bucket.
The beginner, after reading through pages of debate on the merits and qualities of various materials is often left with more questions than answers. But- there is one underlying theme that is not dependent on choice of material—experience, and or knowledge of what to do, how and when. Experience and knowledge cannot be learned from a book or watching a demonstration. It must be acquired by doing something with real trees.
There is a favorite mantra that floats through the bonsai community like one of the Ring Wraiths from a Tolkien novel; the price of learning bonsai is figured in the wake of dead trees. It is probably true to some degree but it is not necessarily a fore gone conclusion, nor a badge of accomplishment that some would indicate. A tree is usually killed by mistakes beginners are likely to make, and mistakes intermediate growers should not still be making but are loath to admit to. These mistakes are usually brought about by impatience, misinformation and bad choices of material.
The really critical issues in bonsai culture are soil, water, timing, root pruning and fertilization. The stylistic issues will come later as cultivational issues have been grasped. Style and form will mature and develop as skill with cultivation increases. Too often the impatience to develop a nice bonsai immediately out of material not ready for the abuse will add to the death toll. There are two schools of thought that are likely to manifest themselves in the minds of the novice: One is that of sheer terror, afraid to do anything, two is that of ignorant boldness attempting to do everything regardless of council or recommendation. Both will cost the lives of trees when followed to their logical conclusions.
This leads back to the central issue of material. How does one just starting out determine what kind of material to start with, considering that the killing of the first tree is probable? Is it justifiable to purchase a very expensive piece of what is called pre-bonsai the right choice? Is it justifiable to purchase a not so expensive piece of pre-bonsai material? I suppose this can be determined by the amount of disposable income the grower has to work with and does not mind losing in the beginning. But and still, the average novice has no real clue as to what is appropriate for them.
The real issue in my book is to obtain something that has some sort of artistic future that the grower can visualize in the tree now. In my opinion this would rule out the mail order bonsai nursery, not because of trust or price or anything other than personal selectivity. I believe it is important for a budding Bonsaists to pick his/her own material, something that they can perceive to have a form they can develop. There is nothing more important to the beginner than an idea up front that the tree they have in hand can be made into a bonsai.
Bonsai after all is an art form though some would argue this point claiming bonsai is a craft. It does however take some sort of eye for form and style in order for a plant hobbyist to take a plant, regardless of where it was obtained, and transform it into a bonsai. Ultimately this is the skill that will make a bonsaist out of a plant hobbyist, but it is the skill seldom taught or discussed. Those who have a talent for this either don’t teach it or don’t know how to teach it, they just do what they do because of talent that they cannot impart to another party, but the results are the same.
The novice is left to their own devices in selecting material, a process that could take years before they finally get the idea of what it is they need to know in order to create a bonsai. Often this is learned and obtained through previous failures and failures ongoing unresolved. It takes a good deal of study and experience to identify good stock, experience and study that must take place in the field not in a book. Most of the time good material does not jump out at you, especially nursery stock, it is an eye for the art, knowledge of what can be done with what material, and recognizing the possibilities hiding in an over-grown bush.
It is far simpler to develop something when you have an idea where it is going than to attempt to develop something from material that does not inspire that sort of creative spark to a subsequent direction. Because of this I would rule out seed cultivation except as a side bar for entertainment and educational purposes, and mail order because the buyer will get what they get. It is important to know what you are likely to find under all of these options, and choose the option where success is more likely.
I think the argument about material all boils down to the grower’s ability. It is not for lack of reason that there is an axiom in bonsai that it takes three years to learn how to water. A bonsai pot is not a natural environment for a tree to prosper in. Without careful intelligent care a tree is most likely doomed. Most are lost due to improper watering. So the appropriate question to be asked is what material will provide the best opportunity for success with the least amount of risk financially and materially, and is not so fussy in its care that advanced growers are prone to lose them.
As I see it the only thing that makes sense is something that is low in price but old enough and big enough where the skills learned will cover as much ground as possible in one package with the possibility of a favorable result over a number of years. The opportunity must be there where one learns to water, fertilize, prune, wire and pinch. Then comes the root work with repotting, soil mass reduction, proper soil mixes, and basic maintenance over time. Like it or not all who are interested in making bonsai, and not simply owning one maintained by a third party, have to go through this progressive learning experience. Without it, failure will be a constant companion. Therefore it is important that the material chosen at this time be affordable. This usually rules out Yamadori and Pre-bonsai.
The argument I often encounter for pre-bonsai is that of root development, trunk development and initial styling of a sort. For the sake of clarity and for the benefit of those who may not know what a pre-bonsai is we will briefly describe that source. Most people that brandish this term are referring to material grown by professionals exclusively for bonsai culture. This material will ideally be field grown, trunk chopped, and root pruned. It will also be resold to the consumer at a significantly higher price due to the time and labor involved in producing it. Sometimes some initial styling will be done but this is not always the case.
Here is the problem I see with this choice. Bonsai culture involves growing out, also known as field growing, cutting back trunks and branches to develop taper, also known as chopping, and root reduction. If this is all done initially for you, in purchasing pre-bonsai, what skill have you learned beyond the ability to write a check or throw a piece of plastic? After the purchase you have what might be argued as a superior piece of stock but with no idea of what to do with it. With this in mind it is important to remember all the advantages obtained through this purchase will quickly disappear in a year or two leaving you with an expensive piece of material, no clue how to work with it, and a situation where you are faced with the necessity of having to do something and soon, especially with deciduous trees which have a short turn over time.
In avoiding these processes in the quest for a bonsai quicker you have robbed yourself of the experience and the skills necessary to do the things you now must do. These skills are nonetheless crucial to your future in bonsai and they are skills you are going to need.
There is an axiom in child development that postulates there are certain steps the child must progress through on the way to adulthood. It also says that a missed step will exact its own cost somewhere else down the road. The same is true in bonsai. Choosing to miss some process in deference to speed will cost you something else some time in the future. The cost could be the loss of a fine potential bonsai.
This leaves two sources: Yamadori (collected trees), and local nursery trees. Oddly enough the problems with both sources as far as the trees are concerned are opposite and identical. Harvested Yamadori is the preferred material for the masters’ world wide, I will not argue this point, however, this is not where the beginner should start. The bottom line with these two sources is a fact that both need major root work; the nursery tree must have major portions of the old root system removed and re-grown, the Yamadori has very little in the way of a root system and must have one developed. Both require similar skills and confidences.
Collected material: The mantra is that this material is free. Nothing for most people could be farther from the truth; especially if you buy Yamadori from a professional collector. For most people living in North America it is not possible to take a walk in the woods and come home with an acceptable Yamadori that is of the kind of quality worth the effort. The only really good Yamadori are for the most part conifers. There are a couple of exceptions like the Florida Button Wood, and the Western Manzanita but most of the rest are conifers: Pines, Junipers, Hemlocks, Yews, Spruce, Larches, and Firs. Of these most will be Junipers and Pines. None of these trees grow in Yamadori quality close to any major Cities except in the West part of the USA. A good Yamadori usually occurs in the mountains, deserts, or bogs where it is the recipient of foul, harsh weather and even worse growing conditions.
What I mean by Yamadori quality, are trees that exhibit the character and ruggedness developed over many years struggling with the forces of nature. These trees are difficult to find even in the areas where they are likely to occur. It is not likely you will find a tree worth harvesting in some pasture in Iowa, not impossible but not likely. Just any old tree dug from the woods will not fill that niche, and any beginning grower thinking he is going out back to dig up a tree will be a happy camper in the end.
When I have voiced these concerns I am often confronted with the answer; find a teacher to guide you. Again not everyone is able to find a willing teacher or one who is marginally competent. I know people who have been doing bonsai for twenty years that have not grown beyond a mallsai mentality. People like these are of little use as teachers, even if they have their own bonsai business—and some do. You do not have to be a master bonsaist to sell bonsai things, you just have to talk the talk and fake the walk.
There are two ways of obtaining Yamadori: One is to purchase them from professional collectors. Needless to say this source is not in keeping with the premise of this article, bonsai on the cheap. The other of course is to harvest your own.
There is a romantic aspect to this endeavor that lures many in the art to look to this source. Books are read, CDs are reviewed and the novice heads to the mountains shovel in hand, imagining themselves as some sort of Indiana Jones of bonsai searching for some lost civilization in the wilderness where these beautiful tiny trees twisted and contorted by nature into wonderful shapes are just waiting for to be found. Often the truth is far from what the books say and even farther from the fantasy the novice collector has in their mind as to what they will face. First off you have to go where these trees exist, usually in the mountains and usually above fie-thousand feet above sea level.
The terrain is rocky, difficult and even dangerous. Few realize that above a mile high walking and climbing can be impossible because the air is thinner and breathing is difficult. After hours of searching one might encounter a suitable tree and be disappointed that it is growing in such a place that collecting is impossible. Often the trees that seem to be collectable will thwart the collector because the root system does not go where they thought it should go. For the most part, trees in this type of location cannot be dug up simply by putting a shovel in the ground and digging up a nicely intact root ball. A good many collectable trees have to be obtained by a process of root chasing, something not discussed in most books I have had exposure to. Without a good understanding of root work, successful removal of one of these gems is in question.
Let us assume that you have successfully removed a tree from the wilderness. It is not uncommon that your new acquisition will have a horrible root system. It is likely that you will have three to five very long roots with the feeder roots at the very ends. These feeder roots must be preserved until it is possible to stimulate back budding nearer in toward the base of the tree. You may also discover that your new tree does not have that vaunted classical nebari so many bonsai growers talk about as being one of traits of collected trees. In my experience collected trees have the worst root systems of any source you could put your hands to. The entire root system must be re-grown and developed over a period of maybe five years—or more. Really old conifers cannot be rushed unless you need instant and costly firewood.
I am not trying to discourage anyone from collecting but I am trying to be honest with you. Collecting is hard, expensive due to travel, without guarantees of success and often dangerous. It is important to know what you are getting into before you start out with your head in the clouds.
We are then left with the Nursery trade as a source of material. It may not be the best but you can generally be assured that the trees are suitable to your area and will not require additional care to guarantee their survival. They will not need a change of climate or elevation recovery period, or one of adaptation to container living. In general nursery trees are more cost effective than pre-bonsai of the same size and age and collected trees in time to develop. Most important of all is that the cost of failure is not usually marked in the hundreds of dollars associated with a good pre-bonsai or a collected tree. The ugly truth of bonsai is that most people just starting in the art are bound to kill a few of the first trees they experiment with.
So we are left with the original question; is it possible to create Bonsai on the Cheap? The answer is yes and I might add it is recommended for the learning experience if nothing else. What you learn dealing with nursery trees will be an excellent foundation for solving the kinds of problems you will encounter when you have gained the experience and expertise that makes obtaining costly pre-bonsai and Yamadori material to work on not so much a risk.
Here is the main problem most encountered with nursery trees. The novice will go out and try to find a nursery tree that kind of looks like a bonsai and then try to put the thing in a bonsai pot. The odds of finding a really good tree that looks like a bonsai from any source is very small, nursery, pre-bonsai or Yamadori, all will need to be worked and developed. The only way you can buy a tree that looks like a bonsai is to buy a bonsai already completed, or nearly completed.
Many novices will come home with a little Procumbens Juniper, sometime called Japanese Garden Juniper. It will have no trunk worth taking notice of except to criticize its smallness and will look more like a stick in a pot. Many novices think that we grow small trees into bonsai so they buy small, young and yes—cheap. The truth is that most bonsai, regardless of the source are larger trees cut down into bonsai.
Most of my bonsai created from nursery trees were two to four times bigger than the actual bonsai they became. The art of using this material is first recognizing the potential in a clutter of branches etc. second, learning how to develop a new root system, third, that of reducing down both top and roots in an artistic and horticulturally sound manner that will not kill the tree. None of this can be done with little tiny trees.