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Miami, Florida USA

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Ten Steps to Better Bonsai

By Mary C. Miller

These “Ten Steps” are about creating a good bonsai collection.  The steps are divided
into two parts.  The first five are best applied before acquiring a tree.  (However, they
will still be valid when refining or purging a collection.)

Steps six through ten are ongoing.  In closing, a few miscellaneous but important tips
are included.  These tips may be new thoughts for novices, but hopefully serve as
reminders to more experienced bonsai practitioners.

Part I - Selecting a Tree   

1.  Tree Choices  -  Use proven species as bonsai subjects.  Let someone else try weird
and strange trees from other zones.  If you want to experiment, try plants from your
area that others may have passed by.  First, ask around.  There may be a good reason
that plant is not being used.

Small leaves, small flowers and/or proportionate fruit are standard guidelines. Use them.
There are some exceptions. Seagrape, for example, has proven to be an easy-to-reduce
large leaf 

2.  Branching and Taper  - When creating your own tree, lots of branches mean lots of
choices, that’s good.  If you are purchasing a “finished” bonsai, major branches should
already be where they belong.  

Taper in trunk and branches is a huge asset.  Taper is part of what gives a small
“tree-look” to your bonsai.  Most of the time, you can tell how the taper will appear
when mature, even in juvenile trees.

 3.   Nebari - is a Japanese word.  It refers to the lower trunk and surface rootsNebari
is a major asset in designing a quality bonsai.  No matter how well you have placed the branches, no matter how old the plant is, without good “nebari” your tree will never be considered a great bonsai.

 4.   Size of Bonsai -  Select a tree that you can handle.  Very small trees (shohin) don’t
take up much space.  However, they are more difficult to create as good bonsai and
they do require more attention . . . including frequent watering.

If you have ‘ready helpers’, large trees may not be a problem.  Be warned: friends,
kids and other family members will quickly tire of hauling, lifting and helping repot your
huge masterpiece. These bonsai are often categorized as two-man and three-man trees.

A medium size - one you can lift - works best for most people.

Place your bonsai at a comfortable height for working.  (Smaller trees need to be higher.)
As in other art forms, the closer to eye level the easier to enjoy . . . and work.  Bonsai
kept at or near ground level are regularly neglected.

5.  Make better investments  - Whether shopping for starters or old trees, buy better material.

Good bonsai subjects are often costly . . . because someone else has put in the time and money!  Judge the tree by the guidelines above and remember, expensive does not
necessarily mean better
!  Examine trees closely.  First appearances can be deceiving. 
Beautiful flowers on a stick, albeit it a fat stick, do not make a good bonsai.

Good health seems like obvious criteria, but sometimes sickly bargains cry out to be
taken home.  When you start with a tree that already has problems, you are taking a
risk. Your money and time is often wasted. 

Part II - Develop and Maintain

6.  Understand Certainties - Expect your bonsai to change.  No bonsai ever  stays the
  If you have done Steps 1-5 properly, the changes should be for the better.

Watch for opportunities to have a new branch in a better location or perhaps remove
an old one.  Be aware of exposed roots headed in the wrong direction - treat them as
branches. Eliminate criss-crossing roots early on!

Another certainty is weeds. Weeds will appear frequently and must be removed roots
and all.  Don’t even think about weed killers (e.g. Roundup) in containers.

 7.  Trim, Trim, Trim - No excuses.  It is important to keep your trees trimmed.  Learn
how to directional prune!

If you’re not sure where to cut . . . at least “hedge prune”.  (Next time you walk by
a hedge, observe how dense the branches are.)  This will give you many options
when you are ready to prune appropriately. 

8.   Wire - Learn to wire properly.

If you are likely to forget to remove wire, consider “tie-downs”.  Not quite as perfect
for placement, but certainly better than nothing.  If done right, “tie-downs” can be
an easy way to get a branch started in the right direction. 

Eventually, to have fine bonsai, you will have to wire! 

Remove wire before damage ruins an otherwise good tree.  Don’t be the one that
everyone looks at your bonsai and says “beautiful but ...”   Yes, we will see the scars.

9.  Roots - Get to know your tree’s root system. 

Some trees prefer to have somewhat “tight feet” (junipers for one), while others,
like Fukien Tea, will decline if kept in a root bound condition.

Ask experienced people for advice.  What time of year to prune?  How often? 
Should you comb out the roots?  What about sawing the root mass?  Not all plants
are the same.

 10.  Refine Your Collection - At least once a year, give your collection a serious
critique.  If you can’t be honest, hire someone to do it for you. 

Sort out any trees you no longer love and ones that have no future. (Best done
around club auction time.)  Don’t worry about “getting your money back”.  If they
gave you pleasure and hopefully many lessons,
you got your money’s worth.  

Additional Tips

If you don’t own John Naka’s ‘Bonsai Techniques I’  and ‘Bonsai Techniques II’
Go online and order both books today!

Most bonsai books are written for other than tropical climates.  In South Florida,
kip chapters about trees to use, times of year and most soil mixes.  Unless you’re
just curious!

Water as needed!  Be wary of instructions to “water every day” or “every other day”
or “every third day” etc.!  Every little micro-climate is different. Instructions should
be “keep evenly moist”, “keep wet” or sometimes “allow to dry out a little between waterings”. 

Feed your trees frequently.  Follow instructions for “outdoor potted plants” on any
fertilizer packages. No need to get creative by diluting and/or changing the timing.

The ‘perfect soil’ is the one that works for you. 

Use your own ‘Magic Cloth’.  You may be surprised at how helpful it is.

Are you a “collector” by nature?  Instead of too many trees, collect bonsai pots
and stands
. . .  zero  maintenance!


© 2008 Mary C. Miller



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