If You Are Serious About Bonsai

Attila Soos

Omono
Messages
1,804
Reaction score
36
Location
Los Angeles (Altadena), CA
USDA Zone
9
Here is a thread where everyone can vent. There were many threads in the past with similar subject, but I started this one because I've just read Peter Warren's view on this in his interview at the Art of Bonsai website, and wholeheartedly agree with him. Here is what he says on the subject of selecting the best material for bonsai:

Peter:

If you want to be practicing bonsai at the highest level then nursery (garden centre not bonsai nursery) material is all but useless and the sooner that Western bonsai moves away from thin trunked garden junipers in ten gallon pots the better. They were not designed for use as a bonsai so they will make poor bonsai. For a genuine conifer with any character then it must be a collected tree (other than shohin). If you want to create deciduous trees then starting from nursery stock will immediately create problems of no taper, poor root structure, poor branch placement and inappropriate leaf size. You would be better off growing from seed to have full control over root development and subsequent growth. It is possible to grow a maple from seed to the highest quality finished tree in 20 years; all you need to do is look to Bill Valavanis’ collection for evidence of this in the West.

Nursery material has the advantage for the beginner in that it is inexpensive and easily available. You can explore many possibilities and designs and also practice techniques such as wiring, grafting etc. However they are just training wheels and should be removed as soon as possible if you are serious about Bonsai. The inexpensive nature of the trees leads to a lasseiz-faire attitude, they are forgotten about and if they die the common response is “well it was cheap anyway”. Until people have a vested interest (time or money) then there will be a lack of improvement as there is no pressure to maintain or improve. This is the dividing line between occasional hobbyist and serious amateur.

Peter often states that this is just his opinion, and thus it is not right or wrong, so feel free to disagree with him. I also took the liberty of highlighting some of the text with bold.

Peter sees cheap garden nursery material as only fit for "practice and discard" purposes. You practice on them at the most basic level, and then give them away to make room for valuable and advanced material, with character. Using them for more than cannon fodder, is harmful for the advancement of bonsai, in the West.

Recently, I talked with someone who was very successful at training young brokers at Merrill Lynch. The failure rate in this business is close to 90% (which leaves 10% success rate), but his success rate was an astonishing 60%. "The secret" - he said, "is to select the right people in the first place. Training them is much less crucial then the selection itself."

I think that it's the same in bonsai: selection of material is the secret. Beginners need to be reminded of this over and over again.
It's not that a talented individual cannot create a good bonsai from less than good material. He can. But why spend a lifetime of struggling with bad material, when you can achieve it in a few years with good material. We are talking about your time here, the most precious thing that you have: your time is your life.

One or the arguments I always here is: "We shouldn't discourage young beginners by telling them that their cheap nursery material is unsuitable for bonsai, or in other words, it's crap".
But let me tell you something: there is nothing more discouraging for a beginner, then to find out that after spending 5 years on his tree, it is still crap. On the other hand, had he spent a little more at a good bonsai nursery (such as Brent Walston's, for instance), after 5 years he would have a great candidate for an outstanding tree.

And yet, the truth remains the same: the number one source for bonsai material in the Western world is still the cheap 1 to 5 gallon, totally useless plant nursery tree.

Discuss.
 
Last edited:

rlist

Shohin
Messages
294
Reaction score
4
Location
Portland, OR
USDA Zone
8a
To be fair and open, I think we should post the question as well, if AOB editors don't mind of course...

AoB: Do you see nursery material as the best source of bonsai in the future, or would you rather see more yamadori to be available (this is in reference to bonsai in the Western countries)?
 
Last edited:

bonsai barry

Omono
Messages
1,374
Reaction score
43
Location
Cental Coast of California
USDA Zone
9
One or the arguments I always here is: "We shouldn't discourage young beginners by telling them that their cheap nursery material is unsuitable for bonsai, or in other words, it's crap".
But let me tell you something: there is nothing more discouraging for a beginner, then to find out that after spending 5 years on his tree, it is still crap.
Discuss.

In five years, it'll probably be a dead , anyways.

I would argue that the real junk is not the nursery trees but the imported "S-curved" trees.
 

Attila Soos

Omono
Messages
1,804
Reaction score
36
Location
Los Angeles (Altadena), CA
USDA Zone
9
In five years, it'll probably be a dead , anyways.

That's probably true.
But, as Peter mentions, this is attributed largely because of the mentality:"it is cheap anyway, so no big deal if it dies".
On the other hand, if the person spends $200 on the initial material, I bet that he will make some time to learn about how to protect and nurture his investment. After all, when I was in the army, I learned in one week how to operate a fully loaded infantry tank, with ammunition. How much harder is to learn how to keep a tree alive.

Of course, if you've spent next to nothging, there is virtually no incentive to learn how to protect your worthless investment.

Investing a little more, achives two things: leads to better bonsai, and forces you to learn faster. Both things are essential, if you are serious about this.

When my son becomes of age to care for a bonsai, I will give him a $500 tree and tell him this:
"This tree costs about $500. If it dies, you will have to replace it with another $500 tree, and you will have to pay for it on your own." Knowing him (and he is only 5 years old), he will make sure that it will never happen. Giving him a $5 tree will guarantee that he will kill a dozen before he cares to learn.
 
Last edited:

Rick Moquin

Omono
Messages
1,245
Reaction score
14
Location
Dartmouth, NS Canada
USDA Zone
6a
Well Attila you sure like stirring the pot don't you. However I need to point out that although your observation is noteworthy, a better argument would have been to invite everyone to read said profile review at A of B.

Because I believe his entire views need to be read if one is to understand where he is coming from wrt nursery stock.

As I pointed out an extremely wise and talented young man.

Edit: Boy oh boy this one is going to be fun :) :) :)
 

Attila Soos

Omono
Messages
1,804
Reaction score
36
Location
Los Angeles (Altadena), CA
USDA Zone
9
Because I believe his entire views need to be read if one is to understand where he is coming from wrt nursery stock.

As I pointed out an extremely wise and talented young man.

Edit: Boy oh boy this one is going to be fun :) :) :)

I agree with you, it's a remarcable interview with an extraordinary young man.
The reason I did it this way is because most of us here already know about AoB, so I don't want this to be perceived as an advertisement.

I could have posted this thread on the AoB website, but I don't see it as a good idea: AoB is mostly for reading, and less of a discussion forum, although I would love to see more discussions over there.

So, I see this forum as a better suited place to discuss this and let it all out - in a positive way (not to trash the place). I hope that BonsaiNut doesn't mind.
 
Last edited:

Rick Moquin

Omono
Messages
1,245
Reaction score
14
Location
Dartmouth, NS Canada
USDA Zone
6a
If ya need something to chew on, check out Robert Steven's deadwood thread over at IBC.

I was going to post a portion of his interview the day following it being published "the delta between Eastern and Western beliefs" but decided against it. Many can learn from his wisdom.
 

reddog

Mame
Messages
191
Reaction score
71
Location
U.S.
I agree with Rick. I read the Peter Warren interview at aob and found it very interesting and insightful. He was in Portland a few months and I enjoyed his visit at one of our meetings.
 

Bill S

Masterpiece
Messages
2,494
Reaction score
21
Location
Western Massachusetts
USDA Zone
5a
Attilla I do agree with this piece, there will be the exception here and there, where the lucky find nursery stock, or combination of stock and talent work out wonderfully, but good prebonsai, and yamadori are the way to go.

We will still see the mentality that -

I still have 30 years of life to go I'll keep trying,
or " What do you mean it needs be chopped in half, I think it's cute"

or spout that changes need to be made to the "definitions and rules" because I don't want to follow those, because "I think this is good enough", or " I'm artistic and I think this is fine even if no one else thinks so".

Those are the ones that I say "well if he's happy with it so be it", but I still want to shout out "OK, fine if thats what you want, but just don't call it Bonsai".

Evolving, and bending the conventions a little is ok and expected with almost anything, doing so to make it easier for those that can't be bothered with the effort is a shame, so I say we add another catagory - Hey, thats a cute little plant - oh ya we have that already, it's called a house plant - not that there is anything wrong with that.:rolleyes:
 

Attila Soos

Omono
Messages
1,804
Reaction score
36
Location
Los Angeles (Altadena), CA
USDA Zone
9
I say we add another catagory - Hey, thats a cute little plant - oh ya we have that already, it's called a house plant - not that there is anything wrong with that.:rolleyes:

Great idea, "Hey, that's a cute little house plant" sounds good to me. It is complimentary, and we carefully leave out the word "bonsai" from our post. If the poster asks about styling advice, we can always say: "No need for that, just let it grow and it will always look cute. Styling would just ruin it". The good thing is that nobody will see our rolling eyes as we type on the keyboard.
 
Last edited:
Messages
2,776
Reaction score
21
Location
Michigan, USA
USDA Zone
5
I agree with what Peter said in the interview about the quality of stock one should work with. I also agree with what Attila has said in reply, however, I think most of the debates on this subject have to do with the false perception that price dictates quality, it does not.

Spending $500.00 on a piece of stock does not assure quality anymore then spending $5.00 on a piece assures that it is crap. Buying from a business that specializes in bonsai no more assures quality stock then buying from a garden center assures crap.

Price has nothing at all to do with quality.

What makes quality stock is trunk, branching, roots, etc. The lack of such makes inferior stock. This concept is simple, all one needs is a good eye, patience, and the ability to see the future of the tree to acquire quality stock. It doesn't matter in the slightest what was paid or where it was purchased, quality stock is quality stock, just because it didn't cost hundreds or thousands does not mean it is not quality, just because it wasn't purchased from a specialized bonsai nursery does not mean it is crap.

A good number of the world class bonsai in existence today were created from collected material, acquired at a low monetary cost. Some of the great bonsai today were created from nursery material, some were from bonsai nurseries, some were imported, and some were purchased already styled and formed. Which are invalid? None are. It is the end result that matters, not where the material came from or how much it cost.

Excellent material makes excellent bonsai, regardless of where it was acquired or what it cost.

That being said (again) it should also be noted that the best material in the world will not assure one creates a great bonsai, that takes talent. There are some people who have studied under great masters for years and have never created a single noteworthy bonsai, there are others who have been at this art for a brief time and have created great bonsai without such formal instruction. This is due to talent, not material.

The best material in the world will be wasted on those without the ability to use the full potential offered, yet the worst material in the world has a far better chance of becoming great under talented hands. Couple great material with great talent and you have great bonsai, take away one of the two and you have quite a bit less.


In short, people should worry less about what material cost or where it was purchased and instead focus on the quality of the material.

Will
 

Bonsai Nut

Nuttier than your average Nut
Messages
9,895
Reaction score
19,250
Location
Charlotte area, North Carolina
USDA Zone
8a
I completely agree with the point he is trying to make - in general. I don't think that anyone is going to disagree that the best bonsai are going to come from the wild and that nurseries, in general, are a very poor source. However I think it is just as likely for a beginner to pull poor material out of the wild and kill it, as they are to pull poor material out of a nursery and kill it. I think the issue here is skill level. Take a bonsai master to a Home Depot nursery and he will PROBABLY walk away empty-handed. However he might just find a crushed tree out in the parking lot that has been driven over for 10 years that has a lot of potential :)

I still think there are reasons to go to a retail nursery. Last year I picked up 10 JBP in 2 gallon pots that still had lots of low branching. Cut them hard, work on the roots, and stick them in the ground, and you have a 5 year head start versus working with seedlings. This week we were discussing trunk chopping hornbeams in the wild. There's no reason why (if you have the money) you couldn't trunk chop a nursery tree of the appropriate species and fix the roots - even airlayering if you had to. However a beginner isn't going to be able to do this because they won't have the knowledge. Instead, they will go pick up a procumbent juniper in a 5 gallon pot because it "looks" like a bonsai to them. And then they will end up with material that will be a dead-end. (Though still good for training prior to buying the $500 tree mentioned above).
 

grouper52

Masterpiece
Messages
2,377
Reaction score
3,626
Location
Port Orchard, WA
USDA Zone
8
And what if we are not "serious" about bonsai? And how "serious" should we be? Can we ever be too "serious" about bonsai?

Is the time, energy, money and emotional input we invest in bonsai part of a more meaningful and balanced life, and if not, why not?

These are questions I find myself asking as I head into my twilight years engaged in an enjoyable hobby that I'd like to keep on the level of an enjoyable hobby. Can I do this in a light-hearted but not frivolous way, as part of a life that has many other more meaningful components as well? Does this enrich my life, or has it merely become for me an obsession, or a burden, or an arena in which my self worth is at stake?

I think I'd like it more if I could look back at the end of it all and say to myself that mine was a life well-lived, rather than say to myself that I created some really world-class bonsai.

grouper52
 
Messages
2,776
Reaction score
21
Location
Michigan, USA
USDA Zone
5
Is the time, energy, money and emotional input we invest in bonsai part of a more meaningful and balanced life, and if not, why not?

You could always take up golf, needlepoint, bingo, rocking chair racing, etc.

I'd imagine that a healthy individual would still try to excel at any art (or hobby) they choose. I would also venture that if one found that any chosen activity was not meaningful and contributed to a balanced life, that they would simply move on.



Will
 

Rick Moquin

Omono
Messages
1,245
Reaction score
14
Location
Dartmouth, NS Canada
USDA Zone
6a
And what if we are not "serious" about bonsai? And how "serious" should we be? Can we ever be too "serious" about bonsai?

Is the time, energy, money and emotional input we invest in bonsai part of a more meaningful and balanced life, and if not, why not?

These are questions I find myself asking as I head into my twilight years engaged in an enjoyable hobby that I'd like to keep on the level of an enjoyable hobby. Can I do this in a light-hearted but not frivolous way, as part of a life that has many other more meaningful components as well? Does this enrich my life, or has it merely become for me an obsession, or a burden, or an arena in which my self worth is at stake?

I think I'd like it more if I could look back at the end of it all and say to myself that mine was a life well-lived, rather than say to myself that I created some really world-class bonsai.

grouper52

Jesus Will did ya drink a cup of wisdom, not saying you were not wise to begin with, but yes I share in every word you said. I believe my sig says it all.
 
Messages
1,773
Reaction score
14
Location
Ottawa, KS
USDA Zone
6
Spending $500.00 on a piece of stock does not assure quality anymore then spending $5.00 on a piece assures that it is crap. Buying from a business that specializes in bonsai no more assures quality stock then buying from a garden center assures crap.

I would agree wholeheartedly that this is exactly the case. You are absolutely right. There is not guarantee that paying more money guarantees a better piece of material.

Price has nothing at all to do with quality.

I doubt that I could disagree with this more. It doesn't logically follow from your previous statement, it will need a great deal more evidence to back it up. If you round up the best 100 $5.00 bonsai, and place them next to the best $500 bonsai, do you mean to tell me that about half of the cheapest ones will surpass in quality, originality, and artistry about half of the more expensive? Let's compare apples to apples.

And when we ask to see some $5 show stoppers, it's not a personal challenge. There have to be photos of some of these masterpieces somewhere. I want to see them.

What makes quality stock is trunk, branching, roots, etc. The lack of such makes inferior stock. This concept is simple, all one needs is a good eye, patience, and the ability to see the future of the tree to acquire quality stock. It doesn't matter in the slightest what was paid or where it was purchased, quality stock is quality stock, just because it didn't cost hundreds or thousands does not mean it is not quality, just because it wasn't purchased from a specialized bonsai nursery does not mean it is crap.

Once again we are back to agreeing completely. Without a good eye, the material will not be good except by luck, and without a good eye, the material will not become a good tree. You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.
 

Attila Soos

Omono
Messages
1,804
Reaction score
36
Location
Los Angeles (Altadena), CA
USDA Zone
9
A good number of the world class bonsai in existence today were created from collected material, acquired at a low monetary cost.

I agree.

But it is not the cost of the material that we are debating. It is the VALUE of the material.
If someone gives you a great yamadori as a gift, or for a dinner out, it doesn't mean that you've just received a cheap material. Although you have paid nothing for it, or you took out the donor for a dinner, the fact is that you have a valuable yamadori, that has a serious value if it was sold in a bonsai auction. The money that you actually paid for it is irrelevant.

When you go collecting, find a 1000 year-old California juniper, and the tree survives, you have a world-class yamadori on your hand. It is not a $10 tree, although you only paid $10 for the permit that allowed you to collect it. No, you have an extremely valuable material, that could be sold for $2000 in a bonsai auction. So you have a $2000 material.

The cost to you is irrelevant. We are talking about the value. And in an efficient marketplace (such as a theoretical auction at a large bonsai convention), the value would equal the price that you would have to pay for it.

So, when you buy a $5 tree at Home Depot, you buy it in an open market, and the cost equals the value. But when I bought for $60 a great California juniper that is about 400 years old from an old bonsaist who was too sick to care for it and wanted to sell it right away, the actual value was much more than the $60 that I paid for it. It was more like $500. But you can get those bargain when you are in an in a closed setting, with no efficient market.

Let's not confuse price with value, they are not always the same.
 
Messages
1,773
Reaction score
14
Location
Ottawa, KS
USDA Zone
6
A good number of the world class bonsai in existence today were created from collected material, acquired at a low monetary cost. Some of the great bonsai today were created from nursery material, some were from bonsai nurseries, some were imported, and some were purchased already styled and formed. Which are invalid? None are. It is the end result that matters, not where the material came from or how much it cost.

Excellent material makes excellent bonsai, regardless of where it was acquired or what it cost.

While this is true in essence, there is more to the cost of a bonsai than a monetary value exchanged for it. My colorado blue spruce is an excellent piece of material that is going to be more valuable (should I decide to sell it) rather quickly over the next couple of years. I collected it myself, so the ignorant could claim it cost nothing. I know what it cost in time, effort, travel expenses, and moving strain. So if I were to sell it, would it be for $5? I don't think so, it's a quality piece of material that is worth far more. Would I trade it today for a shohin JBP in peak condition? Maybe.

That being said (again) it should also be noted that the best material in the world will not assure one creates a great bonsai, that takes talent. There are some people who have studied under great masters for years and have never created a single noteworthy bonsai, there are others who have been at this art for a brief time and have created great bonsai without such formal instruction. This is due to talent, not material.

The best material in the world will be wasted on those without the ability to use the full potential offered, yet the worst material in the world has a far better chance of becoming great under talented hands. Couple great material with great talent and you have great bonsai, take away one of the two and you have quite a bit less.

Once again we end up at the talent question. I think there is far more to this worship of talent versus hard work than meets the eye. I wonder who have studied under great masters for years and never created a single noteworthy bonsai? It's probably not very politic to splash their names and works all over the net, simply because in spite of distance, it's still a fairly small commmunity.

And I also wonder, which might be more appropriate to ask an actual response, who you think have been at the art for a brief time and have created great bonsai without such formal instruction. In fact, I'd like to see some of their work.

In short, people should worry less about what material cost or where it was purchased and instead focus on the quality of the material.

Will

I would again agree wholeheartedly, except that I think the less one worries about material cost, the more one might be inclined to spend!

Look at it this way: What if I had little money sto spend? What if I were to risk hearth and home if I spent $500 on a piece of material?

If I were unconcerned with the quality of material I had to work with, I might spend an hour at a time sifting through one gallon nursery pots on a weekend. Then again, I might not, and I might search through the WalMart parking lot in spring to find something to style. At any rate, if I were unconcerned, I certainly wouldn't put myself out so much.

On the other hand, if I were highly concerned with the quality of material I had to work with, I might nearly break my back collecting trees from folks' yards (con permiso) and toting them to the house. Or I might hike into the nearby mountains where I could legally collect, and sweat the equity into the tree.

Bringing home my treasures, which one will get the greater effort and care? Does it guarantee a great bonsai? Of course not! Nothing does. But I would wager, the greater equity that went into that tree, dollars or sweat, the better that tree can turn out.

Everything else seems to me to be fluff.
 
Messages
1,773
Reaction score
14
Location
Ottawa, KS
USDA Zone
6
And what if we are not "serious" about bonsai? And how "serious" should we be? Can we ever be too "serious" about bonsai?

Is the time, energy, money and emotional input we invest in bonsai part of a more meaningful and balanced life, and if not, why not?

These are questions I find myself asking as I head into my twilight years engaged in an enjoyable hobby that I'd like to keep on the level of an enjoyable hobby. Can I do this in a light-hearted but not frivolous way, as part of a life that has many other more meaningful components as well? Does this enrich my life, or has it merely become for me an obsession, or a burden, or an arena in which my self worth is at stake?

I think I'd like it more if I could look back at the end of it all and say to myself that mine was a life well-lived, rather than say to myself that I created some really world-class bonsai.

grouper52
Will, these things are true, but I still want to create some world-class bonsai. If, because I have no talent in spite of the teacher I have, I may never make it. It will still be my dream.
 

Similar threads

Top Bottom