April 7, 2020

The Root of All Bonsai

          Many people don't know this but bonsai are actually made by magical, elven wizards disguised as humans. The best of these wizards channel the universe's energy into their green thumbs to create unbelievable works of art and captures the essence of a century-old tree into one small pot. Although millions of people around the world appreciate the art of bonsai, the methods of these bonsai wizards are somehow a total mystery to outsiders. Luckily, with dedication (and a little time reading my blog), you can learn their secret methods too.
          To illuminate these magical methods for creating bonsai, I'm excited to announce that today's post is the first from my five-part "How to Grow Bonsai From Seed" series (yes, this is what I've been keeping myself busy in quarantine!). Before we can even discuss how to grow from seed, it is only logical to discuss alternative ways to jumpstart your bonsai addiction, as growing from seed might not be suitable for everyone. Each source of prebonsai material has its own advantages and disadvantages, and each will challenge you to build your bonsai skills differently.

         If you're looking to buy seeds for bonsai - full disclosure - I am writing this series with the intent to sell my own seeds for growing bonsai (see here). I plan to send a hard copy guide to everyone who buys seeds from me and supports my work in bonsai. As I'm still drafting the final parts of this series, sales will probably not open until next week when I publish the next article in the sequence. Stay tuned! Even if you collect your own seeds, I hope this series will be a widely useful resource to all!


Here I am with one of my first collected trees. Of course, some bonsai owe their origins to natural environments! I estimated the age of this pine at about 30 years. Whitebark pines retain their needles for 3 years, so I was able to count using bud scars on the branch for this estimate. If you start humbly like this, collecting from wild, legal places can be one way to accumulate prebonsai trees.

          Today's topic might be a little bit basic for many bonsai practitioners, but over the coming weeks, we will quickly build our baseline of knowledge to bring beginners to more advanced topics. Hopefully, this series will save some folks out there a few years of frustration and offer a shortcut to allow you to learn and use powerful lessons & techniques for growing bonsai from seed. If you are more experienced, let me know if you agree with my evaluation of each technique for starting bonsai! Which is your favorite?

1A. Seeds

          Since this is the overarching theme of this series, I won't dwell on seed-growing here too much for our pilot post. I will say that with the right experience, growing from seed can be a rewarding and inexpensive way to make new bonsai material for yourself. However, due to the technical difficulty and wait-time involved, this might not be the best starting point for beginners. I certainly support using seed-growing as a supplement to your bonsai collection, but if seeds were my only source of trees, I would water, weed, and wait 99% of the year and only 1% of the year would be spent doing any remotely-bonsai technique like pruning or wiring (we will get into why this is the case later in this series). Your skills as a plant-grower would improve by growing from seed, but there is not much to do as a bonsai artist for the first 3-5 years. This is the most important distinction to understand before you grow from seed - bonsai growing and bonsai styling are radically different skillsets. You can and should develop both at once, but it is important to have realistic expectations about the process.

Advantages: Easy to start many at a time, offers a high degree of control for the final image
Disadvantages: Slow, technically difficult process without the proper knowledge, trunk size will not mature for 5-10 years MINIMUM depending on your goal, mastery of technique, and species used.

A forest full of pine seedlings. Be sure not to follow my lead and give your seeds more space than this. At the time I was more inexperienced and didn't expect so many to germinate successfully!

1B. Cuttings

          Growing from cuttings is a technique that allows us plant-people to take a young, recently pruned branch and grow roots on the bottom so that it can be a standalone tree. This can particularly be useful in cases where an exotic mutation has sprouted on a tree, but the seeds may not be true to the mutation, so instead that variety is propagated solely based on cloning the original parent plant. This method is also used as a short-cut to growing from seed, as you can have a large parent plant growing in the ground to draw cuttings from.
          I am not particularly skilled at propagating cuttings, but one bonsai artist/nursery grower who uses this method better than any is Mark Comstock of the Kingsvillegrower Nursery. Mark's mastery of the growing-from-cutting technique is clearly evident by the photos of his latest projects which he often shares on his personal Facebook account. If you would like to attempt to root cuttings as well as Mark, he will sometimes share information about his methods on his personal Facebook account, however for a more complete picture, Mark also often credits his success to a book called The Reference Manual of Woody Plant Propagation: From Seed to Tissue Culture by Michael Dirr and Charles Heuser. If you want to get radial roots as impeccable as Mark's that would be a great starting point.
Advantages: Large degree of control over development (young starting point), typically start with a better radial root spread, slightly faster than growing from seed, easy to clone unique varieties.
Disadvantages: Technically difficult for some species, trunk size will not mature for several years.

This is perhaps Mark's most well-known contribution to the American bonsai scene. He has mastered the ability to get huge numbers of radial roots on Japanese black pine cuttings. Anyone who has ever grown from seed before knows how impressive this number of roots are at a young age. Mark's stock will surely be fast-tracked to becoming excellent bonsai thanks to this starting point.

One year after the cutting was struck - roots everywhere! Another photo from Mark's personal Facebook page.

1C. Air-layering

          Air layering is a method used to take a large branch off of a parent tree and grow roots on it which will eventually allow the branch to be removed from the parent and survive on its own. By removing a section of bark in a ring shape around your target branch and wrapping the wound with moist moss or soil, the downward flow sugars downwards are cut off which means they will coalesce into a callous and finally new roots as the living branch continues to photosynthesize. By leaving the heartwood intact, the parent clone will continue to supply water and nutrients to our target branch while these new roots grow. 
          Again, In an effort not to reinvent the wheel, I will point you to Graham Potter's youtube tutorial on this topic. There are many tutorials out there on how to air layer! I have done one successful air layer in my bonsai career, but I definitely need more practice with it!

Advantages: Quick timeline (1-2 years) to get a mature trunk, good odds of radial roots to start with, technically accessible for beginners
Disadvantages: Requires some practice. In rare cases, the branch or parent tree could die if not done correctly.

The boxwood around the beginning of the air layer process. Photo from 2017.
My first successful air layer was off of this Boxwood. The branch was a bit too tall and taperless to fit into my image of the final tree, but why waste it?!? After one year, I noticed it had calloused over my initial cut in some parts without making any new roots, so I remade the cut and was confident enough to remove the root mass after an additional year had passed.
As you can see, there's another long, straight, and taperless branch on the right in need of the same treatment (it might just have to go altogether if nothing sprouts lower). In a future repotting, I'll make it tree more upright. Photo from 2020.

1D. Nursery stock

          In my mind, starting bonsai from nursery stock is the best method for beginners to get into bonsai! Whereas growing from seeds and cuttings requires years of very little hands-on work while you wait for your seedlings to grow, nursery plants are already bushy! Healthy nursery plants offer the fastest way to be exposed to the many techniques essential to making and maintaining bonsai trees - repotting, styling, pruning, wiring, and carving on the aesthetic side and other health-related techniques such as evaluating basic watering and fertilization needs of your plants.
          Largely because I am a college student living on the cheap, I resolved for the past few years to only get new trees by collecting them or growing from seed myself, rather than buying nursery material. This is why I don't have many of my own nursery stock transformations to show you all. Instead, for inspiration, below I have embedded a large album from the r/bonsai 2019 Nursery stock contest. Every year the bonsai subreddit encourages members to buy raw material and see who can make the most impressive transformation on that material in a 1-year timespan. I would encourage you, new bonsai artists out there, to look through the album for inspiration and consider joining this year! It's a great way to challenge your bonsai skills. What else do you have to do during quarantine anyways?

Advantages: Most accessible for beginners, can be cheap, saves a few years relative to seeds and cuttings.
Disadvantages: Not as cheap as growing your own stock, species and varieties available are limited to what your local nursery growers find popular.

1E. Urban-collected material/Yardadori

          This is the sort of material that can make for great bonsai if you are opportunistic enough. Urban-collected material is in essence nursery stock material that has matured! Many landscapers know that these can become just as powerful of bonsai as wild-collected yamadori; and, f you're really lucky, you can find landscape material that is just as old sometimes. It's always a good idea to be neighborly, but as a bonsai artist, you have added incentive in case anyone is planning to tear out any old bushes from their garden!
          Collecting any tree from urban or wild environments is a sensitive process for the survival of the tree, so get as big rootball as possible and do not rush into styling the tree! All the trees I collect are allowed to sit for at least one year to regain their health and ensure they adjust to pot culture okay. Once I see strong evidence of rebounded health (through amount backbudding or new growth), then the tree can progress to its first styling.
          As my yardadori are all in recovery, I will instead highlight one of my bonsai teacher's bonsai which originated in a man-made landscape. Back in the 1980s, one of Dan Robinson's first bonsai students collected the magnificent Azalea below from a church parking lot in New York City. The age of landscaping material can be often found with the help of the history of the building the plant is collected from. It is believed that this azalea sat in that church parking lot being trodden on by passing parishioners since before cars were invented! A quick look through history pointed me to some online rumors that Azaleas were first imported to the US in the 1830s. This notion is often attributed to the azalea historian (yes you heard that right), Frank Gale. If this is true, then it is definitely possible that Dan's azalea is over 100 years old!

The first year that I helped the Puget Sound Bonsai Association organize their Bonsai Fest & Spring Show at the Pacific Bonsai Museum, Dan's Azalea won the people's choice award. Photo from 2017.

1F. Wild-collected material/Yamadori

          Wild-collected material has given rise to many of the most majestic and famous bonsai in the world. Although the term "yamadori" in Japanese means "mountain-tree", different environments around the world can harbor naturally dwarfed trees which are ideal for bonsai. In desert environments, a lack of rainfall could limit the height of trees; in boggy environments like the one which gave rise to our recently discussed "Melted Hemlock", too much water can restrict the space in which roots can grow; in mountains, a short growing season and poor soil can also easily give rise to naturally dwarfed-trees; and even in your average forest, trees growing on rocky outcroppings or even understory trees could easily be put on the path of the bonsai life. While some mountains are taller than others, wherever you live, if you are willing to explore your local environment without preconceived expectations, you can learn about your local environment and hopefully find some material with potential. I have enjoyed exploring different environments around Seattle, but it definitely takes time to find the ideal conditions for your area - doubly so when you also learn about what type of root system you need to find to ensure the survival of the tree after transplanting it.
          Finding where natural bonsai exist is one thing, but digging them up and taking them home is another. Collecting yamadori can be a controversial topic in bonsai, but there is no shortage of legal areas to collect natural bonsai, especially out West with National Forest transplant permits. Even still, the great age of yamadori requires that we also consider how we can best demonstrate respect for our natural spaces. Leave-No-Trace hiking practices (pack out your trash, re-fill your holes) should be a given but also be sure to start out humbly and seek advice from other experienced local collectors in your area. Yamadori can be fragile creatures sometimes, so caution and patience are advised to ensure the survival of your trees. Practicing with urban collecting is also a great starting point as it can teach you about what degree of stress trees can handle and recover from when transplanted and how to care for them after transplanting to help them along in recovery. 

Advantages: Instant timeline to get a mature trunk, often possess unique and difficult-to-imitate signs of age especially natural deadwood textures
Disadvantages: Requires time to search, practice to transplant, and patience for recovery, or can be very expensive compared to other bonsai sources.

The "Melted Hemlock" was discussed in a blog post last month when it was repotted. In that discussion, I go into more detail about this tree's natural history and how it ended up so contorted.

Next week!

          Here's what we're looking at for the future direction of this series - feel free to offer suggestions for other major topics I should cover. Today's topic actually got spun out of next week's "'Bonsai Seed' Myths", as it is a common myth that all bonsai are grown from seed and cared for by people their entire life. Now y'all know this is not so! There are many ways to start your bonsai journey. Good luck! 😄

1. The Root of All Bonsai
     1A. Seeds
     1B. Cuttings
     1C. Air layers
     1D. Urban Collection
     1E. Wild Collection
2. "Bonsai Seed" Myths
     2A. "Bonsai seed kits are a great gift!"
     2B. "Bonsai seeds are rare."
     2C. "All bonsai are grown from seed."
     2D. "Growing from seed is the best way to learn about bonsai."
     2E. "The more I prune, the faster my bonsai will grow."
     2F. "Growing from seed is a waste of time!"
     3A. Germination
     3B. Years 0-3
4. Long-term growing plan
    4A. Ground growing vs pot culture
    4B. Sacrifice branches
5. Bonus Gallery

1 comment:

  1. Great blog post on "The Root of All Bonsai"! Your insights on the importance of root health and care are valuable. Thank you for sharing your expertise on this crucial aspect of bonsai cultivation.