Bonsai: noob with scissors

Bonsai: noob and scissors. I know nothing about bonsai. Or rather, practically nothing. Should this stop me? NoooOO! Bonsai is, of course, an impossible world. It is full of technical stuff about soil composition, tree shapes, cutting, snipping, wiring, not wiring, clipping. What kind of wire, foil, raffia, string, cutters. And aesthetics and zen. Frontal perspective, shaping a piece of nature into a different piece of nature. Mimicry. And most of all: time. Long, slow, time. Years. Decades. Scouring the net, the sentiment that pops up often is “and in two years, this might be a good specimen. In a decade, we will see if it really is any good”. It is about the process, there is no “product” per se. It is never finished, as it is essentially about nature. And there is no such thing as an end-point in nature. One hilarious sentence I found was, “remove branches that have unnatural shapes”. There is obviously no such thing. No matter.

So. I went to the garden centre and got a juniper, Juniperus procumbens ‘Nana’, which is the one suggested for absolute noobs. I have no real idea what to look for, and it is dense, prickly; the branches stiff; so looking underneath it is a hassle. The weather was freezing and awful, so I was not going to stand there for ages, looking.

The first two days, I was doing well. I was studying it, gently fiddling to feel the shape of the trunk and branches, and I felt very zen. I removed tiny little bits to see what I had. I stared at it. I found that it seems to have a root that comes down from the trunk in a rather odd way and was pleased. And then I could not contain myself: I removed it entirely from the pot, removed all the soil I could, and tried to straighten the roots. This uncovered about two extra centimeters of the trunk.

Bonsai – the massacre
Bonsai – the massacre

Then of course comes the repotting; and this is fraught with danger in the bonsai world. The soil mix theories could fill hundreds of PhDs, and they all go on about specialist clay, volcanic rocks, and magic soil from Japan. This seems a little over the top to me. I am a little more pragmatic. I do think the soil is extremely important when you have the thing in proper bonsai pots, as they are ridiculously shallow, they hold hardly any soil at all. But in my case, I stuck it back in the same pot, though with less soil. I took the soil I had, which is nutrient-rich, and added a good pile (40-50%?) of perlite and pumice. This is what the bonsai-nuts call a “training pot”, and it might sit there for two-three years.

There are millions of “good advice” out there, and I read a shitload of it. There is this idea that if you remove x % of roots, you should remove about the same of foliage and vice versa. On one level this makes sense; the roots have to feed the foliage, the foliage needs to photosynthesis properly etc. I kinda felt sorry for the little thing. I cut about … 1/4th of the roots, and perhaps – so far – 1/5 of the foliage. Now; it needs to just sit there. If I can keep my grubby mitts off it, I will not touch it until I am seeing new growth, to ensure it is settling (or at least, be sure that it is not miserably dying). In the meantime, I will be staring at pictures, and how the pros snip foliage. Then, when some new shoots appear, I will wire it… that might well kill it off completely.

Most likely, I will break every bonsai rule or guideline ever created. But before you pros out there get your knickers in a twist: the journey is the worthier part*. 


Useful links:

Bonsai for beginners

A bonsai blog

Bonsai empire

Kaizen bonsai

Walter Pall

(*did I out-Zen you there? ;)

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