On development of deciduous naturalistic bonsai

There are a lot of topics I keep thinking about. They are coming back to my mind during many occasions when I work on my trees when I'm trying to sleep, or during my long distance runs. 
Especially my ideas from my running are great, sometimes I'm able to put complete novel texts in my head when on run. 
The bad news is they are gone at the moment when I reach doorsteps.

When I was beginning with bonsai, about ten years ago, I started collecting trees from wild. I remember at that time I thought correctly collect the tree, and establish its survival is the hardest part of bonsai making. 
After a couple of seasons, starting with designing newly collected material, I started to think collecting is not that complicated bud engraving some kind of reasonable design to the tree itself is the hardest part. 
I think I went through more stages like this. And up until now, my opinion evolved. 

Currently, I do not think hardest is collecting, nor elementary designing and positioning branches. I think the hardest part is maintaining design I have chosen for the tree. 

Avoiding diebacks of the branches, not letting the tree outgrow its shape, keep the believable shape of the structure for a longer period of time. 

Why I do think it is hard? According to my experience when trees reach more-less final silhouette you must work hard to let sunshine reach inner parts of the crown to avoid diebacks of the weaker branches. 

Once you fail to defoliate the tree on time, either fully or partially, and some of the smaller branches are lost. This is resulting in long branches without or with a minimum of tapering, with ramification only on very ends of them. Sometimes those branches are several centimetres long, on my size of trees 5-10cm easily without forking into sub-branches. 

This is the branch on Hornbeam "Yossarian". In red, you can see where on one of the branches were smaller branches but were lost due to lack of the sunlight reaching inner parts of the crown. Picture was taken from the top. In blue back-budding due to cut back of the small branch and defoliation of the entire space above the spot. 

Shortly after this picture was taken a majority of the ramification in yellow field was removed due to the discussed problem. 

Repairing the damage is really hard. In my experience, you can promote back-budding on prolonged branches where dieback of sub-branches occurred. But back-budding will not happen without light reaching target spot. So you have to clear the surrounding area of the foliage and shorten sufficient amount of branches around to avoid shading weak branches. So, sometimes you have to sacrifice a lot of the "finished" structure to promote new growth. And it is really hard. 

I think it is more valid when naturalistic design if the trees are used. Why is that so? Most of the naturalistic trees tend not to have one single trunk, but rather trunk splitting into sub trunks along its movement up. So, at the level of apex, it is normal to have several competing sub trunks. And they are competing to gain a maximum of the light exposure and usually, a growth of the foliage is concentrating at the top of the crown. 

It is almost never triangularly shaped crowns like at the traditional designs. With the triangularly shaped crown and well distributed negative spaces between branches, one can obviously better manage the light distribution for the tree parts. 

Honestly, sometimes I think that prevalence and popularity of such shaped crowns is more result of horticultural and economic reasons than artistical or design needs. 
My point is, if you are the professional grower of the stock in Japan you will try to use shapes which will avoid diebacks and consequently costly and timely repairs of the lost design of the crown.  And triangularly shaped crowns with well defined negative spaces give you just that, hmm? 

One more thing, I would like to mention here is the Bonsai Mirai podcast, specifically the episode where Ryan Neil is discussing the development of deciduous bonsai with Dennis Vojtilla. Worth listening for everybody who is interested in deciduous bonsai design. One of the questions which Ryan addresses to Dennis how to develop branches on deciduous bonsai. His answer is all at once if I remember correctly. And if you fail at that correction of the problematic parts are very hard. Take your time and listen to it during commuting, as most of the podcast it is fun and pure gold regarding interesting information. Definitely better stuff than listening to a majority of our radio stations. If I can recommend you anything from their archives to start with I would say episodes with Peter Warren are particularly good, and one dedicated to John Naka. But, as I wrote earlier all episodes are fun to listen. 

Anyway, I would like to read your opinions and discuss interesting points related to this topic in a comment section. 



  1. Great article Maros,

    I am a member of Mirai and I feel like I've learned so much more in the past 4 months than in the 7 years that I've really started searching and absorbing information from sources like Walter P, Graham P, etc.

    I find that missing the correct timing on particular procedures is the hardest pill for me to swallow. Like missing the best time to air layer, re-pot, remove auxin and cutting back, partial defoliation, making a stupid mistake and loosing a year here and there.. it adds up. But, it's rewarding when you learn from it and the trees become better in the years following.

    Have a good one!

    1. Thanks Tomas. Timing and knowing what to do. I learned my lessons hard on my stock. Would have been bit further if I knew what to do and how from the beginning.
      I love Mira podcast really. Sitting on long journeys in the car and listening to them is like sitting in Portland Oregon with them, but being shy and not saying anything in the discussion. :)

  2. Branch structure development on decidous tree? Why should one bother? For a majority of the year the tree is covered with the leaves and by snow in winter. Well, at least if you are lucky and live in an area with some snow. And for sure one should not be sharing pics of his/her bonsai without that cover...

    The realy important topic is how to make a bonsai in a shortest possible time with a minimum of work. That's the essence of the game. my friend.

    And one more advice: Never ever let some doubts to cross your path. Do not care what the other guys, whoever they are, do. Branch benders, hedge pruners, dead wood shredders, auxiners...They are just fading stars of the day. Coming and leaving.

    Now if you forgive me, I need to go out to spent some time with my pushbike. If I could think of something better there and I would still remember it back at home I will connect to update...

    1. Well, I made my chunk of mistakes myself along the way. I could have achieve better trees I know that. I'm not ashamed to acknowledge it and present it. Nobody is perfect and I have other things in life than trees.
      Thing is maybe there are others out there who struggle and make same or similar mistakes and can learn thing or two from mine and avoid making same mistake on their trees.
      I'm personally open and keen on study new approaches and techniques if I dare to test them. Being stubborn myself it takes same time mostly but I do not refuse new ideas.

    2. Maros, I was kidding.

      The development of the branch structure on deciduous trees is so important. And still there is not much written about it. Just the basic rules that apply for the traditional bonsai. First two branches to the opposing sides and then the other one to the back to create the depth. Triangular shape of the crown. That's it. A good start but once you get a bit further you realise that you badly need something more. How to get it? For me the Nature is a great source of information. I guess that it was the same for the Chinese or Japanese masters. Nature and Trial Error. Auxins and the other guys have been discovered only in the course of the last century. I guess a lot of bonsai artists are not aware of them even know. But still their trees look so powerful...
      We are lucky. Thanks to the internet we have a wealth of information just within the reach of our arms. No need raise our back from the chair. Our choice to select the ones valid for us. Easy? NO! Most of the guys are just searching for HOW and WHEN information. Who cares about WHY? I am so happy that Mr. Neil is pushing the WHY on its right position. Understanding the needs of your tree and dealing with them with full respect. That is what I do believe in.

      Just a point you have raised about the triangular shape of the crown on Jap trees. Never been to Japan so I can hardly say too much about their mentality but I think that the shape of their bonsai is a reflection of it. Exactness, attention to detail and respect. If you listen to Mr Neil or Mr Hagedorn you can hear that all that is deeply embeded in all they activities. So I do agree with you that the form of Japanese trees is a result of a horticulture ( healthy tree ) and economic ( production of saleable trees mostly as quicky as possible ). So the question as it stands _ are the trees we do admire in Japan a true reflection how the bonsai masters percieve and reflect the Nature or is it just an artefact to please potential buyers? Are the Kokufu-ten winners realy the masterpieces we should follow?
      Well, for me it is easy. I do style my trees to reflect my perception of the nature, to please my soul and raise positive emotions ( Mostly only my ones... )
      Majority of your trees, Maros, do raise positive emotions. Keep going and give us more.

    3. I knew you are joking. :)

      If you listened to all the podcasts from Ryan, maybe you remember discussion (I think with Peter Warren) about exhibition politics in Japan, especially Kokufu and its influence on life of the professional.

      I would like to destile its substance to few points but if you are interested try to re listen to those podcast where Peter Warren is the guest.
      Basically the are on following:
      - if you want to be successful bonsai professional in Japan and have customers which will provide you income to run the business you MUST participate on KOKUFU
      - to participate there you must be successful in surviving the cut in the pre-exhibition selection process
      - Selection process is run by professionals from their organisation (I guess Nippon Bonsai or something like this)
      - They are not going to select your tree if it does not meet their criteria of the bonsai aesthetics.
      - So if you are professional beginner what would you do? Create the trees which will satisfy judges, and subsequently have functioning professional nursery? Or you divert from standard, start the revolution and be broke and hungry?
      - Do you see the full circle now?

    4. Just a quick feedback before I will come back with more "thoughts".

      There is a video on bonsainut about shinji suzuki in his young age and preparation of a tree for another famous exibition. Including the process of judging. Worth to see. The part I have in mind starts after 30 minuts from the begining..Yes, it is a king of a promo but worth seeing if you didn't so far.


    5. I have seen it some tome ago. Im reading the linked thred as well. You probably can guess my opinion on that.😉

  3. I have not followed the embeded discussion. I just follow the pics:) And then I do follow some of the posts of selected numbers of users: Martyscott, Adair, Vance wood and some others.

    The trees in Japan has undergone quite significant change in last 30 years or so. My non educated feeling : from simplicity to complexity & detailism. No doubt - the trees look great but sometimes a bit artificial. My arrogant view - some of the tree are well overramified/overgroomed with strictly defined outline - something that you cannot find in the Nature. Is it to show the amazing skills of the author or is it a reflection of atree in the Nature? Pretty much like the winning tree on the video. ( But to be fair with the judges - they have selected the spruce and the other pine as well. And that has pleased my soul. )

    Looking on the tree in the Nature I think that the trees there have much less branches than their relatives in our pots. In fact I believe that the older the tree the less branches you can find there and more and more " negative spaces" between the individual pads/layers of foliage. The transfer of a tree from the Nature to a pot requires something more than just horticultural skill. Something that you have - looking at your hornbeam.

    1. Remember what Morpheus told Neo in Matrix? "Neo, sooner or later you're going to realize just as I did that there's a difference between knowing the path and walking the path."

      I know what kind of trees I want to produce. I just not sure if I can make them regularly.

      Masters in Japan and elsewhere have they own reasons why they produce bonsai the way they do.

      We, in the West are not bound by it. Many times we forget it. And many times Western artists knowingly follow eastern path due to affiliation to the estern aesthetic . It is not surprising to me at all . Just look how many bonsai enthusiasts are acquired to the hobby from East related interests- karate, kung fu, other martial arts, Japanese gardens, calligraphy. ...You nqme it.

      They want to do it Japanese way, I understand it and have no problem with it.

      But time is coming when more people will understand that in the moment when bonsai art reaches our Western shores, We, Western artists can take it, choose from it whatever we want and like, use it and morph it according to our visions, culture and do it our way.

      It is in no way disrespect or arrogance . It is developing art in the free world . As any other art sometimes it refers to its roots sometimes it goes its own way.

      It is not that we want to make it better, nor think we can do it( we could try and fail freely). We just should do our art differently. Bring new ideas, plants shapes, displays . And finally whole bonsai world will benefit from it ,I believe.


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