Updated: Jan 7
When it comes to purchasing your first Bonsai there is a lot of misconceptions as too how your Bonsai will grow. The biggest one i see if people thinking that time itself will create great Bonsai as they see trees that are hundreds of years old that are stunning, But time itself wont create stunning Bonsai, The art of Bonsai is very methodical and unless you practise the correct techniques are the correct time in the correct order you are not likely to create the tree's you see in magazines and on the internet. Sounds scary right? its not and I'm going to walk you through it below.
Firstly if you haven't seen the video that accompanies this article then check it out below.
Now that you have seen that lets dive a little deeper into each point for all you people who are wanting to learn more and more!
So in the exact same order as the Video lets run though the points
- Slip Potting / Ground Growing
Now when it comes to the growing method you choose one or the other isn't going to see much difference in the growth although slip potting does favour growing trees for Bonsai a little more. When it comes to putting a tree in the ground the benefit is you are letting the roots grow free and long and thick, if you have been following me for a while you will know i teach that to gain thickness in a tree you need to concentrate on growing long thick roots. By planting in the ground your tree can grow as much as it can and wont really every hit a stopping point, That's why trees in nature grow to be massive. Here are a few downsides though to ground growing, The obvious problem is the tree is stuck in the ground, you cant move it to work on it, you cant move it without disturbing it if you move house and you also cant move it in the case of a severe weather event. With a slip potted tree you can move the tree freely without disturbing the root system. Another downside to ground growing is that the roots will spread out and run deep, this creates a very open root ball which is not desirable for Bonsai. The other downside i will mention about ground growing is when it comes time to work the tree for Bonsai you will need to dig the tree up which can set the tree back a year or so in the process if the root ball is super deep and spread out, you will need to cut large tap roots back and put the tree in a box and let the tree recover for a season before Bonsai work can begin. The benefit of growing in the ground? The tree will thicken quicker.
Now what about slip potting? The only real downside to slip potting over ground growing is the tree wont thicken as quick but it will still grow rapidly. You may get a little extra thickness from the ground quicker then slip potting but the big difference will be in the amount of work that follows. As mentioned above when slip potting you can easily move the tree if you need to do some work on it, if you move location or if there is a major weather event you can protect the tree. You can also move the tree through out the year to better positions in the garden for better sunlight or if it is a variety that needs some protection from severe heat you can move it to a partial shade position in summer. Another great benefit of slip potting is the fact that you will always keep the root ball tight and compact and when it comes time to begin Bonsai work you can begin immediately as the tree will be nice and strong as you didn't have to dig it up. This will allow you to make your larger cuts and perform an initial styling without a season in between for recovery. When it comes time to move the tree into refinement and ultimately a Bonsai Pot you will have a lot of feeder roots nice and tight in close to where they need to be so you will be starting in a great position. When slip potting i find as you go up in nursery pot size the tree gets thicker and will require a bigger Bonsai Pot when the time comes so the root ball kind of stays close to been workable at every stage of the slip potting process without having to remove too much to be able to get it into a Bonsai Pot. When it comes time to go up a pot size this can be done any time of year as you dont disturb the roots, you just slip it out of its old smaller pot and put it in a new larger pot 1 size up with new soil surrounding it, E.G 6" > 8" > 10" > 12" and so on. The trick is to not let the tree become root bound before slip potting up a size otherwise the tree may hit a period of slow growth. Let the tree fill out the pot but don't let its roots start circling the pot or growing out the bottom drainage holes.
Slip Potting Video 1 : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rAueAL9D25c&t=482s
Slip Potting Video 2 : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PAo4o7rMnIQ&t=231s
- Heavy Feeding
When it comes to fertilising Bonsai it is important to always understand what your goals are for that application of fertiliser. The feeding of a tree in development is night and day to the feeding of a tree in refinement in both timing and application rates. But for this section we are talking about development which makes feeding a very easy subject. We want to feed the tree heavily with a high nitrogen fertiliser as we know that nitrogen causes elongation which will give you extra growth on the tree which = more " solar panels " for photosynthesis to occur giving you more rapid growth. Now another important ingredient here is phosphorus which aids in root growth, We know that the healthier and more vigorous your root system is the more growth you will get on top of your tree. As you can see looking after your root system is vital to good growth on a tree. The basic mindset here is the more roots = more growth. The longer and thicker the roots the longer and thicker the growth. The longer and thicker the growth the more rapid the tree will thicken. Keep in mind that Nitrogen is generally spent in 4 weeks so you will need to replace organic fertiliser every 4 weeks, slow release fertiliser lasts around 6 months. i would suggest using an organic fertiliser though for stronger growth. Head to your local garden store and have a look at what they have available in terms of fertilisers, you will see an NPK value such as 10-10-10 The first set of numbers being nitrogen the second set being phosphorus and the last set being potassium. Obviously the higher the first number the more growth you can expect from that fertiliser.
- Building Root Base / Trunk Line / Trunk Thickness / First Branch " Tachigari "
Think of it like this, you are building the tree from the ground up, you want to build a nice root flare, then a nice trunk line, then you want to thicken that trunk line which will lead to your first branch. As mentioned in the video this is super important because if this is not done correctly to begin with it can be very difficult to fix. Fixing the root flare can be done but you would be taking 10 steps back and 1 forward. Putting movement in a thickened trunk can be done on some species but it takes some major work to do it with things like wedge cuts.
When building a root base during development you want to concentrate on trying to lay your surface roots out in a radial pattern if you are going for a formal or informal upright design, the root flare is a little different for slanting / semi cascade and cascade trees in which you want elongated roots on the opposite side of the direction of the tree and compressed roots on the same side in which the tree direction is moving, This gives the design a sense of stability.
When it comes to your trunk line it is important to do this while the tree is young and able to be bent, You will want to over exaggerate the bends as the tree will soften those movements as it thickens, although you don't want to be tying knots in the trunk as you will just create balls of swelling and inverse taper. Try to move the tree in all directions as you want a 3d design and not a 2d design, move the trunk backwards and forwards as well as left and right. Try not to fall in to the basic S curve with no back or forth movement. If you are buying a tree that has had some development don't up to this stage then try and look for some features you can highlight on the tree such as dead wood or interesting roots.
Once you have your trunk lines wired up you can begin growing the tree rapidly to get thickness in the bottom section of the tree. Usually this means just letting the tree grow untouched but still keeping an eye on the growth in case you have to correct any problems that may arise, watch areas that you want to keep for bar branching especially in black pine as this can cause a golf ball in the middle of your tree which looks nasty. but remember when growing a tree that the more growth that is on the tree the quicker it will grow. I do have to point out here though that there are some species that are apically dominant meaning the more growth they get on top the more they will drop lower limbs off. in this case you will need to try and keep a balance in the tree to maintain the lower branch you are trying to grow as a first branch.
The last thing you will need to turn your focus too is your first branch, this is the thickest branch on the tree which is why i usually try to give it a head start in the development process. this is fairly simple, much like the trunk, put some shape in it and let it grow wild. Once the thickness is reached you can cut it back to a shorter length ready to grow your secondary and tertiary branches. Just remember with branches on a bonsai the thickest branch on the tree should be the lowest branch and the thinnest branch should be the highest branch. everything in between should go from thickest at the bottom to thinnest at the top so keep this in mind when developing branches, generally you will have to keep your top branches trimmed back while you let the lower ones grow.
- Building Strength
Normally at the end stages of refinement there is a point where you will cut a tree from say 6ft tall back down to 1ft tall to begin growing a new leader and creating taper. This process can take a lot of energy out of the tree so before we go cutting a lot of roots off the tree to get it into a bonsai pot we want to concentrate on letting the tree get some growth back and building its strength back up, at every point of our journey we need to make sure the tree is in an energy positive state, we never want to do work on a weak tree as this will just make the tree weaker. Make sure you give the tree time to recover from any major cuts and keep feeding it to give it strength. Some people like to take the tree straight from a trunk chop and put it into a bonsai pot and start from there but i much rather keep the tree in development and grow all my main branches and get them set with wire before moving into refinement so the whole tree has a basic structure. This gives the tree time to recover from the chop and also allows you to get a better structure set.
- Creating Initial Movement
The last part of development after we have our basic trunk structure built is too start growing out some main branching on the tree and a basic apex region. Once you have enough branches to work with you can start wiring up the initial design of the tree placing all your branches and creating the basic structure of your apex. Remember these branches are not meant to be ramified yet, it is just the basic first limbs which you will begin to grow your secondary branches on later in refinement, The initial branches are placed where you want your pads to end up on the tree. Remember to have foreground and background branching. Once this initial design is carried out you will have a full basic structure of a tree including a nice root base, nice trunk movement, a thick trunk, a thick first branch, plenty of nicely placed branches over the tree and the bones of an apex.
NOW ON TOO REFINEMENT
- Choosing A Bonsai Pot
Now i have already written a full article about this so i will put a link here to that article so you can check that out, it is important to choose the pot that helps compliment your tree and not outshine it. You also don't want a pot that is too understated either as the 2 have to work in tandem to complete the design. Here is the link to the article https://www.bonsai-en.com.au/post/a-guide-to-choosing-a-pot-for-your-bonsai-tree
- Creating The Correct Soil Mix
When it comes to making decisions in Bonsai i always say to know what you are trying to achieve. This is the most simple way to think about your soil mix. You need to think about what you are trying to achieve and also how your mix needs to work for you. When in development we know that we want to create elongated thick roots so we use an organic soil which is dense and rich in nutrients. When it comes to refinement that is the opposite of what we want, we want nice fine roots that bifurcate so we can get nice fine growth that bifurcates. Bifurcation is basically splitting 1 into 2 and 2 into 4 and so on. this is called ramification. So if we use in organic soils this is the result we get, the roots are exposed to a lot more oxygen causing finer growth and they can also grow through the particles of substrate and split in the process. We can achieve this with most inorganic material so what substrates do we use in a mix and how to we come to that conclusion? it comes down to your environment and your availability to water your tree through out the day. If you do some research on the different substrates which you can do some research on our YouTube and though these articles you can learn what substrates are good for moisture retention, drainage and nutrient retention. Obviously you need to be able to make use of what is available for you to purchase as well. if you live in a hot arid area you are going to want a higher moisture retention, if you live in a very wet and damp environment you will want higher drainage. You will also need to research your species to see how much water it requires and how much drainage it requires to help you calculate your mix.
- Transferring From Growing Pot To Bonsai Pot
Now this is an important stage of the growing process as you are basically moving your tree from one home to another and there will be an adjustment period, you don't want to be doing major work to your tree during this stage. You will be taking your tree and cutting the root system down to fit into a small bonsai pot and also changing its soil medium. After potting up your tree it is generally a good idea to leave it be for a season to allow the root system to re establish and get settled into the pot. Take a black pine for example, if you pot it up in spring you wont want to de candle in summer, you want to leave the tree alone for a season and de candle the next year. Some people are very tempted to start working the tree straight away once it goes into the bonsai pot as they can see the finish line and are excited to begin seeing a more refined tree, this means they trim and wire growth as soon as it grows after the tree is freshly potted up but you really just want to let the tree flush and gain energy and begin work the following season. Patience will reward you, doing everything right up until this point will be a waste of time if you fall off the wagon now.
Aftercare is really important after freshly potting up a tree, the tree might be un stable due to being in a new pot and lose medium, the root system is compromised and not taking up as much water, so you don't want to have the tree out in the wind on a hot day. After potting up the tree you want to give the tree some protection from the elements for a few weeks to let it begin to re establish a root system and find its place in the pot, you will want to make sure you adjust your water accordingly and keep an eye on the trees health as it recovers over the next season. Aftercare is an important step just like in development when we build strength after a major cut. we want to get the tree back to an energy positive state before we start any further work meaning let the tree grow again before you start wiring and bending any further.
Now that we are in refinement the feeding is a whole new beast compared to development. Not only do we need to be cautious not to feed to heavily but we need to reduce the amount of nitrogen so we get smaller growth. We also need to adjust our timing depending on the species. You don't want to feed a maple at the start of spring as you are likely to grow long internodes so you would wait till after the first flush of growth has hardened off before feeding, then you would feed at a lower rate then in development just to give the tree some nutrients and keep the colours nice. A black pine would be different again, you would feed all spring until the last 4 weeks before summer then you would stop fertilising because you don't want nitrogen available to the tree after you decandle and start your second flush of growth.
I cant go into every species here but you can see how in refinement it is important to adjust fertiliser to get specific results in trees, different species will have different growth patterns and requirements so it important you learn the species you are working with and make the correct adjustments.
- Branch Refinement
Now that you have reached the final stage of creating your bonsai you can now begin building out your refined branches by applying the correcting pruning techniques and feeding to your tree. By this stage you will have gone through all the correct steps and from here on out will be maintaining your trees shape while adding to your branch refinement each season. Once again i cant go into the pruning of each species here as they are all different and have different techniques and timing but knowing what order to carry out all these steps we have gone through is vital to creating a nice showable tree.