Basic Bonsai Styling Principles: Where do they come from?

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BeebsBonsai

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Hello all,

I have been thinking a lot about a topic lately, the basic tenets of bonsai styling. All of the things we have heard as rules that are only to be broken in special circumstances. What I have been wrestling with is why these specific guidelines? And, I think I have an idea for a lot of them as to why they were adopted so readily. Feel free to critique my thoughts or provide counter-evidence, because I like a healthy discussion. Let's dive right in though.

Throughout this post, I will be referencing different rules of Bonsai that I see everywhere, yet don't readily understand why they should apply to all, or even most trees. My essential argument below will be that the reason for most of these current "rules" of bonsai is their basis in the Japanese Bonsai Nursery Business. That is, these rules are based off of producing the best product, in the quickest time, and with the least time having to be spent per tree. If you look at Bonsai economically, as a business, these rules all provide an advantage to one of these three business tactics.

Before continuing, I want to point out that just because I believe a lot of the rules come from the business aspect of selling trees, does not mean I believe that these rules don't produce aesthetically pleasing and healthy trees, because they do. The Japanese have obviously created brilliant and beautiful bonsai for centuries. However, these points are made more to allow a jumping-off point to think more critically about why we do what we do, and why we shouldn't necessarily think we have to follow every "rule" we have learned about bonsai.

Right, Left, Back (Or Right, Back, Left) Branch order: This might be the first basic tenet of Bonsai design that I ever learned. We have all heard it or seen it somewhere. Essentially, it says that you should follow a branch order that goes "First Branch left, Second Branch Right, Third Branch Back, rinse, repeat all the way up your tree." Where could this come from? Why this design? Is it because it looks beautiful and balances a tree's visual weight? Sure, it absolutely does look beautiful and provides some balance even in the most tortured, twisted, designs. However, I think this design "rule" arose from the "economy of labor" portion of Bonsai Nurseries. Think about how wire would snake up the trunk of a tree, and where you have difficulty when wiring your tree. It's usually in those locations where you are wrapping up towards a branch and it gets in the way of the 45 degree standard wire coil. Now you have to take the time to adjust your path for the upcoming branch. Now, look at a picture of a tree with this structure and imagine coiling your wire up the trunk. In either the clockwise or counter-clockwise direction, the wire will groove right between the branches, never leaving you with that problem. For a Bonsai Nursery who has 100 trees to wire, they have to count productivity in minutes, not hours, and if it takes an extra minute for each tree because you have to adjust your wire route up the tree, that's over an hour and a half of lost productivity. Compact the work for those trees into a small period of time, and that lost productivity can't be had.
Also consider maximization of resources, both as a business and horticulturalist. A tree designed in this manner maximizes utility of sunlight. It allows the tree to absorb as much sunlight as possible, and reduces the places where one branch is being shaded out by another. This allows the tree to grow at it's best possible rate, assuming all other conditions are controlled. This is beneficial both for the tree and the business. It maximizes efficiency and increases the value of the product as it grows at it's best possible rate.

Pot Size (Smaller is Better): The common rule is that we should achieve to have our trees in as small a pot as horticulturally possible. That is, as long as it is safe for the tree, and it is not going to be grown any larger, you should strive to have it in the smallest pot as possible. This rule is usually tied to the aesthetic aspect that it provides to the tree. The smaller pot makes the tree look even larger. There is no doubt that is true, the ratio of pot size to tree size plays a major role in the way we perceive the age of the tree. However, this practice also provides an economic gain for Bonsai Nurseries. Smaller the pot, less soil that has to be in it, the less it weighs, and the easier it is to move around. This saves both material cost and labor cost. A smaller pot itself is cheaper, provided all other aspects of the two pots being compared are controlled. A nursery saves money on soil because they need to put less in the pot. Finally, the Bonsai Nursery saves in labor cost because it's easier to lift the tree. The same tree might take two people to move if it was in a larger pot, or it might take one person 20 seconds more to get it to it's next location. Multiply the labor out across dozens or hundreds of trees, and there is quite a bit of labor to be saved.

Odd Number Rule for Forest Plantings: This one is a bit more nuanced and less-well known than the others: Essentially, this ubiquitous rule states that whenever you create a forest planting, you should always have an odd number of trees in the planting. Why? Well, according to the rule, using an odd number of trees avoids symmetry within the planting. Symmetry is said to be bad in a bonsai design because it removes the illusion of randomness within a design. Remove randomness, and you show your hand, you break the proverbial "fourth wall" and the illusion of the design as being natural is broken. The viewer now sees the hands behind the trees. That is the design theory that is posited.
Let me ask this, have you ever seen a grouping of trees that has an even number of trees? I know I have. In fact, if you were to go on google earth and just draw outlines over and over, and then count the trees in them, I am sure you would find that there are an even number of trees in a bunch of those outlines. So, why do we did this become, what I would argue, is the most ubiquitously applied "rule" in Bonsai? I posit that this comes from maximization of space within the container. Assume you have a pot and are attempting to plant as many trees in it as safely possible for the trees. Good Bonsai have a radial root pattern, and good plantings have a variety of sizes. Inevitably, you will notice one pattern that will allow the most trees to fit in that planting as possible. What I will call, for the sake of argument here, "The Zipper." The zipper is just what is sounds like. You take the trees and align them in the manner of a closed zipper, lines that are staggered to provide more room for the roots of the trees to cover the spaces between the roots of the trees in front and behind them. As another analogy, imagine people in a theater watching a movie are trees, the people need to have enough room to sit (a tree's roots), but also need to have a clear view of the screen. In order to get the most out of the theater, the seats are staggered so that one person's line of sight in the seat is straight between the two heads of the people in front of them.
Take this analogy to the bonsai container again. By using odd numbers of trees in groupings and the entire forest, a Bonsai nursery can use that staggered "zipper" approach to maximize efficiency of each tree within the pot, while still getting the most out of the container. This allows the forest containers to be smaller, less soil to be used due to the smaller container, and also makes them weigh less than they otherwise might. To me, this is the one rule that Bonsai Enthusiasts need to start considering less. If you have an amazing tree you want to include in the forest, but it would make the planting an even number of trees, use it. If you don't like it after a few years, go back to the odd number, but give it a shot.

No Forward-Protruding Branches/Lean Your Apex Forward: Right off of the bat, I would not suggest breaking these two rules. There are very fundamental visual and practical reasons for these two rules being in place. However, for fun, or an exercise of my madness, I want to dig into these two a bit from the economic and practicality perspective. Practically these both make complete sense for two reasons, ergonomics and ease of lifting. Take a tree that is already styled with the right, back, left branch order and add two forward protruding branches. You're left with nowhere from which to lift the tree if it is big enough. You can see this problem in action with broom-style trees. It can take two or three people, who have to extend their arms to avoid breaking the branches as they lift, to move the tree. Take the same tree, and remove the forward-protruding branches, and it might only take one person because they can lift from the front and hold the tree close to their body without fear of snapping branches. For anyone who has an OHSA certification, keeping something close to your body is ergonomics of lifting 101. Getting rid of forward-protruding branches allows Bonsai Nurseries to use half or less than half of the labor to move it than a tree with those pesky branches would require.
Similarly, leaning the apex forward gives a huge practical ergonomic benefit. Having the apex of the tree leaning forward moves the tree's center of gravity towards the person carrying it. The weight of the tree naturally will go towards the body of the lifter (Again, OHSA 101). The easier to lift, the less labor required to do so. This also prevents potential injury and recovery times of employees.
In addition to the practicality of leaning the apex forward, the practice of doing so may save some trees from being dropped/broken. Why? Well, let's make an analogy for the 20th time: let's assume you are lifting two different packages of the same weight. However, one package has all of it's weight on the side facing you and the other has all of it's weight on the side away from you. Now, Imagine you start to lose your grip on the package and it begins to slip from your hands. Which package is easier to prevent from falling? You guessed it, the one whose weight is towards your body. You simply keep it snug to your body, adjust your grip, and you're good to go. Applying that to trees, if you are the owner of a Bonsai Nursery, you would want the trees to be easy to carry, and more importantly, more difficult to drop. Nobody wants to drop a tree that worth tens of thousands of dollars.

Conclusion:

This post was not meant to challenge the accepted bonsai "rules," but rather to spur discussion on their origins. None of the above discussion is fact, but merely speculation as to how some of these rules may have arisen with their practical application to the business of selling trees. In general, you should follow these concepts. However, if you feel as though that one branch should stay because it is beautifully ramified, or that you want that extra tree in your forest, this will hopefully be a nudge to go ahead and keep the design aspect. I am not saying to throw the rules out the window, but rather to understand the rules before you break them, and that they may not be entirely rooted in artistic design. After all, when it comes to art, all rules are meant to be broken.

I also would like to hear your thoughts on my points as this has been something I have been thinking about since I got in the hobby. However crazy these points sound, I wanted to get them out there and get this discussion going. Thanks for the read if you got here, and I hope you've enjoyed a look into my crazy mind.

Beebs
 

rockm

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Jeez, I don't know where to start. Either you are extremely cynical, or You have too much time on your hands, or both IF you're serious. Here ;-)

The design "rules" are simply a path to producing a tree that looks like a "tree." They're simply artistic foundations that produce the visual effects that make bonsai compelling and not just a bush in a pot.

Odd numbers tend to look more natural than even, good forest bonsai are not produced to "maximize" space for retail, pots frame the composition (smaller isn't necessarily better--too small is worse than too big)

Branch design has absolutely nothing to do with ergonomics or economies of scale, even with mass-produced "mallsai," certainly not with higher end bonsai nurseries.
 

Smoke

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This you can take this to the bank...

Bonsai has NOTHING to do with retail nurseries....

..... especially OSHA

Two books for reading about bonsai after WWII and it's introduction to the USA via Yoshimura and Naka. The two Godfathers of the " rules " in the west
 

JudyB

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That is a lot of typing unless you just cut and pasted. This subject has been thrashed before, and will be again. They are guidelines meant to help guide the design of a pleasing tree. There are exceptions for every rule. Good luck with your quest!
 

rockm

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Your post starts with a very strange idea of bonsai -- that it is geared towards maximum production and profit. The old "how do you make a million selling bonsai--start with $3 million" joke comes to mind. There is VERY little money to be made selling bonsai, ask the poor guys doing it.
 

my nellie

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... ...The thought that the reason for rules is to save money has earned you a "you are crazy beebs" vote from me LOL.
Oh yes I should have reveal my vote, too. Same as Judy's!
 

rockm

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Your post starts with a very strange idea of bonsai -- that it is geared towards maximum production and profit. The old "how do you make a million selling bonsai--start with $3 million" joke comes to mind. There is VERY little money to be made selling bonsai, ask the poor guys doing it.
And FWIW, the place where most of the $$ is made in bonsai-- mass produced bonsai or mallsai--DON'T ADHERE TO DESIGN RULES. They aren't wired, or pruned much. They are plunked in the cheapest smallest pot possible because it's less expensive, but not because of design rules. Mass produced trees are mostly made in China AND ISRAEL, or at some hack nursery in the country they're sold in.

Bonsai conspiracy theories, like the vast majority of conspiracy theories, are bullcrap... No doubt you will find followers ;-)

Besides, no one is making anyone follow the rules, for God's sake. Also FWIW, I too have seen forest groups with even numbers (GASP), I've even seen even numbers suggested in bonsai books from Japan...I've seen trees that don't have traditionally arranged branches and in pots that are too big for them. I've seen trees that don't follow the rules, but work and others that are eyesores...

Follow the rules as you will, or cower in the corner at the cabal of horrid Japanese nursery-enforced mandates, your choice.
 
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BeebsBonsai

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Jeez, I don't know where to start. Either you are extremely cynical, or You have too much time on your hands, or both IF you're serious. Here ;-)

The design "rules" are simply a path to producing a tree that looks like a "tree." They're simply artistic foundations that produce the visual effects that make bonsai compelling and not just a bush in a pot.

Odd numbers tend to look more natural than even, good forest bonsai are not produced to "maximize" space for retail, pots frame the composition (smaller isn't necessarily better--too small is worse than too big)

Branch design has absolutely nothing to do with ergonomics or economies of scale, even with mass-produced "mallsai," certainly not with higher end bonsai nurseries.

I guess i shouldve reworded my intro here. I was more looking to see how the applied rules could have been influenced by the business aspect. Or how we could see the rules as going hand in hand with the business. Its been running through my head a lot. I spend a lot of even busy time ruminating about bonsai stuff
 

JudyB

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I have a clump tree with 4 trunks!!! Off with my head!!!
But actually I have had suggestions from people to take one of the trunks out... so it is out there in the collective bonsai mind.
 

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