What is the real benefit of joining a Bonsai Club? This was a question I asked myself several times before taking the step to walk through the doors of the the club. I had visited two or three North East Lincolnshire Bonsai Club Annual Shows over the previous years and had been to a couple of Bonsai Nurseries, so what was I going to gain from joining the club? I had a few trees but nothing like those I had seen at the club shows and anyway, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be a club member.
A few years on I have changed my mind and attend the club as regularly as possible. I have also gone to a few workshops at bonsai nurseries where I have learnt some of the basics of bonsai, but I do not profess to be anything other than an enthusiastic learner, and most of my learning has been via club members.
I recall my early visits to the club quite clearly and particularly the first time I took one of my trees… I had never heard of heel roots, bar branches or several other comments that were made about my tree when it was critiqued, although one comment in particular was extremely memorable and should never be forgotten – it’s your tree and it’s your decision what you do with it.
I still have that tree and it still has some of the faults which were a raised in that early critique, but I now understand the desired improvements and try to reduce them whenever possible. The heel root is at the back out of sight and some of those offending bar branches have been removed to improve the tree’s appearance.
Almost every club night includes a discussion and critique of members’ trees and sometimes the criticism can be a bit blunt! I suspect that like a lot of new club members, my early visits to the club often left me questioning whether I could ever hope to have trees as good as some of the other club members. I had read about wiring, pruning, re-potting etc. and had taught myself some of the basic techniques, or so I thought… so why join a club?
I saw that some nice trees were brought by other members and that I could get to look at them closely, which simply had to be better than looking at photographs in books. From the critiques I started to understand the importance of some of the terms used in bonsai such as nebari (root spread) and ramification (branch structure). I realised that there was a lot that I did not know or understand about bonsai and that most impotantly, I could learn from the experience of some of the other members.
The North East Lincs club programme for each year includes guest speakers and the prospect of seeing them was very appealing.
My trees are for my own enjoyment and if I wanted to improve them I would sometimes have to accept advice and on occasion some criticism.
Attending club meetings is helping me to improve my bonsai skills and the quality of some of my trees, such as this Hornbeam (above), which I had bought as a seedling from a bonsai nursery several years before joining the club and have recently used it as part of club displays, including a bonsai event at Elsecar (South Yorkshire) just a few days ago, where we saw some of the best trees in the entire country.
My first experience of what I would call ‘a bonsai workshop’, took place at the club approximately a year after I had joined.
A number of Juniper ‘Media Blaauws’ which were garden centre plants had been obtained and a well known speaker whom had been arranged, would give a talk and assist interested members in styling one of these trees.
I had some limited knowledge of styling some of my trees which had been bought as semi styled bonsai but this would be my first attempt at styling from raw material and I had some reservations about taking part – would I create something which would eventually look like a bonsai or a bit of a disaster? – but nothing ventured nothing gained!
I already had an understanding of the various styles of bonsai but the talk was still interesting; the speaker explained the different styles and why these trees were more suited to certain styles than others, illustrating this with sketches.
We were then guided through the process of cleaning out the dead and weak material from within the tree, attempting to identify the best ‘front’ aspect, wiring the basic structure and removing unwanted material such as branches and shoots growing directly up or down. I felt quite happy with the results of my work after doing this. The speaker then worked with us individually to style our trees, positioning the branches and removing those which he considered not to be required.
One of the most difficult things I have found in bonsai is removing branches – once you cut it off it is gone forever – but this comes more easily with experience. My initial reaction to this latter part of the process was that he had removed more material than I thought necessary and that the tree now looked a bit too short of foliage and I really wondered would it ever recover? After initial styling, five years on and still in training, here it is.
My experience of this initial workshop convinced me, that attending others would be worthwhile.
At our October club night one of our more experienced members brought in a small azalea which he had recently purchased and explained how he had re-potted it immediately as the compost in which it was planted (hard and compacted) would not be good for its development. Looking back, this is something I should probably have done with my first tree, had I known.
The tree was a lovely little Chinese Elm labelled as an ‘indoor’ bonsai, purchased from a supermarket, just as some I have seen recently in a local supermarket, priced at just £5.00.
I cared for it the same as I would any other house plant but it died quite quickly and I had no real idea why, whether it was through too much or too little watering, or if I had I kept it in the right spot in the house. Needless to say, I was disappointed… had I killed it or was it already dying when I bought it?
My next tree was a Serissa, which I managed to keep for two years as an indoor plant, although it never really developed in that time and sadly, it also died. Clearly, I had a bit to learn about keeping bonsai but by now I was hooked on the hobby and visited a bonsai nursery for the first time where I purchased a Japanese Maple.
Looking back now, I know that the tree was not the best of bonsai material, having a straight section of trunk which then divided into three quite thick branches, and then a few secondary branches, so ramification was not very good and the root spread was and still is quite poor.
After reading up on soil mixes, wiring and other basic techniques I started to attempt to improve the tree. My attempts at wiring were only just adequate and the following spring I re-potted the tree in a soil mix bought at the nursery and proudly viewed the tree as it changed throughout the year. The following year I re-potted it again and suddenly one of the three main branches died; I’m not sure why but I suspect that the cause was probably that I ‘root-pruned’ it too heavily as this was my first attempt at this process.
Some years later I decided that the tree should be restyled and removed the second main branch which has left an area of dead wood which is not common in deciduous trees. The tree is pictured here; it is still not a great bonsai but unlike the Chinese Elm and Serissa, it still survives!
If you are new to bonsai or lucky enough to be given one this Christmas, think seriously about getting in touch with your local bonsai club where you will receive valuable help from experienced members.