Refocusing as a Hobbyist

thams

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So, I've been done the bonsai rabbit hole for a about 5 years now and I'm proud of the modest gains I've made in the hobby. I have a decent pottery collection and have picked up some solid foundation knowledge about bonsai basics - watering, soil, ferts, etc. BUT, I feel like I'm stalling a little. Since moving into my house with decent outdoor space, I've been focusing on collecting as much good material as possible to set myself up for some decent bonsai in 5-10 years. Developing interesting and mature (versus seedling or sticks in pots) material is keeping me interested in the hobby, but I don't really know where to go from here to develop my skills.

My ultimate goal is to begin showing and then maybe one day exhibit at the National show. For those of you who have excelled in the hobby, what did you find that really helped to propel you to the next level? Should I focus on certain species? Stick with either shohin or larger material? Become a jack of all trades? I plan to become more active in the ATL bonsai society, so that will likely help develop my skills some. Once my material become a bit better developed, I want to start posting here more for advice. I don't post often now because I'm not sure what posting pictures of raw stock would contribute to the collective knowledge pool. Maybe posting and interacting more often here (even though I lurk a lot) would build my skills. I don't know - any advice is welcome.
 

Bonsai Nut

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The key is to spend time with other skilled bonsai practitioners. You can achieve this many ways: (1) form a study group (2) join a club (3) attend workshops (4) study under a bonsai instructor. There is nothing like benefiting from someone else's experience.
 
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Get out of your comfort zone and do some stupid things.
Last weekend I went berserk on a cheap 5$ juniper and I believe it's going to be one of the best trees I own, if it survives. If it dies, I've learned the limit of what they can handle, another cheap lesson.

I believe there is a cap to skill level, simply because trees grow slower than we can advance as humans.
That's when I dig in for winter, grab some books, make a wishlist, and start planning on what to next spring. If I advance more than my trees, I might stop liking 90% of them. So I'm taking it slow but steady.
 

Dav4

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The key is to spend time with other skilled bonsai practitioners. You can achieve this many ways: (1) form a study group (2) join a club (3) attend workshops (4) study under a bonsai instructor. There is nothing like benefiting from someone else's experience.
This!! Also, expose yourself to as many good trees as possible, but preferably in person. Attend local and national shows when able, and visit public and private collections when able. Before moving to GA, I'd visit The New England Bonsai Gardens regularly and hang out in their greenhouses for hours, studying both their personal trees as well as stock for sale. Since moving here, I've volunteered at the Smith Gilbert Gardens, been a member of the Atlanta Bonsai Society, and regularly attend the local regional shows... and I hang out with some of the more experienced hobbyists in the metro when time allows. Lots of opportunities around here to improve your game.
 

thams

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Get out of your comfort zone and do some stupid things.
Last weekend I went berserk on a cheap 5$ juniper and I believe it's going to be one of the best trees I own, if it survives. If it dies, I've learned the limit of what they can handle, another cheap lesson.
I've killed my share of trees overextending things a bit, so I have an idea of what can and can't be accomplished at certain times of the year with certain species. What I want to focus on is developing very nice and mature material in a methodical and measured way. I could tinker with a nice tree for 10 years and it could still be mediocre at the end of the day. What I want is to learn is how to take that tree to the next level by maximizing my skills. By doing that, my trees will reach their full potential much quicker than if I fly blind by experimenting here and there.
 

thams

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This!! Also, expose yourself to as many good trees as possible, but preferably in person. Attend local and national shows when able, and visit public and private collections when able. Before moving to GA, I'd visit The New England Bonsai Gardens regularly and hang out in their greenhouses for hours, studying both their personal trees as well as stock for sale. Since moving here, I've volunteered at the Smith Gilbert Gardens, been a member of the Atlanta Bonsai Society, and regularly attend the local regional shows... and I hang out with some of the more experienced hobbyists in the metro when time allows. Lots of opportunities around here to improve your game.
I think this is maybe part of my problem. I haven't been terribly active in bonsai clubs and events, so I haven't really been exposed to top talent. I've spent a good amount of time at the National Arboretum checking out the collection there. I've also visited a few other exhibits as well, but I haven't really been shown how to take raw stock to a refined tree. Maybe picking up a mentor or something similar would be helpful for me. I think a structured learning process would be helpful so I can approach my trees with the same deliberate structured process to move along their development.
 

PABonsai

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You could always seek out study under someone. Many of the best bonsai artists have students loosely similar to how things are in Japan. Ryan Neil, Boon, Jim Doyle, Bjorn, Chase Rosade for example all have students whom they are teaching. Maybe that sort of structured learning will help.
 
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I've killed my share of trees overextending things a bit, so I have an idea of what can and can't be accomplished at certain times of the year with certain species. What I want to focus on is developing very nice and mature material in a methodical and measured way. I could tinker with a nice tree for 10 years and it could still be mediocre at the end of the day. What I want is to learn is how to take that tree to the next level by maximizing my skills. By doing that, my trees will reach their full potential much quicker than if I fly blind by experimenting here and there.
I think that you will need more developed/advanced material as well, in addition to what the rest is saying.
 

Anthony

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When you start to show - it isn't a hobby anymore.

What you do in your backyard is anything goes.
Satisfy yourself.

Showing is based on concrete rules.
And I would imagine you want the trophy.

So visit Sifu @Adair M and chat with him.
Best of growing.
Anthony
 

Dav4

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I think this is maybe part of my problem. I haven't been terribly active in bonsai clubs and events, so I haven't really been exposed to top talent. I've spent a good amount of time at the National Arboretum checking out the collection there. I've also visited a few other exhibits as well, but I haven't really been shown how to take raw stock to a refined tree. Maybe picking up a mentor or something similar would be helpful for me. I think a structured learning process would be helpful so I can approach my trees with the same deliberate structured process to move along their development.
You're more then welcome to swing by and check my trees out... no trees worthy of a national show yet but pretty good none the less, with lot's of multi year projects in the works.
 

River's Edge

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So, I've been done the bonsai rabbit hole for a about 5 years now and I'm proud of the modest gains I've made in the hobby. I have a decent pottery collection and have picked up some solid foundation knowledge about bonsai basics - watering, soil, ferts, etc. BUT, I feel like I'm stalling a little. Since moving into my house with decent outdoor space, I've been focusing on collecting as much good material as possible to set myself up for some decent bonsai in 5-10 years. Developing interesting and mature (versus seedling or sticks in pots) material is keeping me interested in the hobby, but I don't really know where to go from here to develop my skills.

My ultimate goal is to begin showing and then maybe one day exhibit at the National show. For those of you who have excelled in the hobby, what did you find that really helped to propel you to the next level? Should I focus on certain species? Stick with either shohin or larger material? Become a jack of all trades? I plan to become more active in the ATL bonsai society, so that will likely help develop my skills some. Once my material become a bit better developed, I want to start posting here more for advice. I don't post often now because I'm not sure what posting pictures of raw stock would contribute to the collective knowledge pool. Maybe posting and interacting more often here (even though I lurk a lot) would build my skills. I don't know - any advice is welcome.
Find a teacher, focus on repotting, wiring and basic styling. Practice, work continuously with your trees, put in the time! Choose species for your climate and interest. Visit top Bonsai displays, study high quality Bonsai.
Guided practice with a knowledgeable person is the best way to progress quickly! It prevents practising bad habits for years!
Skill development is similar in all professions or trades. Proper instruction and repeated application!
Just watching and discussing builds a false sense of accomplishment in my opinion. You have to get down and do it yourself! The more you actually do the work, the more experience and differrent situations come up. Rounding out your abilities and cementing your foundation.
 

Leo in N E Illinois

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@thams
Seriously, ignore the advise to do stupid things. I've cluttered up my yard and life with stupid impulse purchases. They become a time suck, taking time away from material you can actually learn from. As you said, you already have your share of stupid impulse purchases and impulse projects. Now is the time to get serious and focus on learning.

The advise to join a club, or start a study group, is excellent. Get a teacher, mentor or at least a few weekend workshops. The best thing I did for my bonsai, was to join a "master class" series, taught by Ted Matson. Ted came to town 3 times a year, for 3 years, and had all day Saturday sessions with a group of 6 of us. Ted had 6 on Saturday, 6 on Sunday, so the travel expenses and daily fees were shared by 12 of us. Made for a great experience. Then a few years later I did 4 years of a similar arrangement with Peter Tea. Learned tons, and really kicked my bonsai up a notch.

Now I'm living on a fixed income, and I joined a study group, Arbor Arts Collective. We have "no rules" and "no dues" so it has been an inexpensive way to keep my interest up in bonsai. Skill range is across the spectrum in our group, 2 of our group make the 4 times a year trips to Ryan Neil's place, and to a fair degree, bring back what they have learned. So monthly get together's with this group of friends, really helps to keep me learning and refining my technique.

Pick up material of different AGES. Different stages of development. Forego the end of season sales at the big box stores and save up for trees already in advanced stages of development. You won't live long enough to bring all the young stuff through all the stages of bonsai development. From retiring club members, or from estate sales of deceased bonsai club members, you can get "post mature" material to tackle, usually much cheaper than exhibition ready trees. Keep your eyes peeled, while mature trees are expensive, deals that are good value do come along.

Don't get caught in the trap of only working on trees you designed from scratch. Bonsai is a hobby where curating a collection is just as important as learning styling. There is a very valid role in taking tree that one or more different artists have set to a design, and having the vision to continue to develop the tree into the best bonsai you can.

I've tried to specialize, and narrow my collection to just a few species. That never works for me. I need to keep a varied collection. But I try to have a few where I collected multiple trees, for example right now I have 5 different cultivars of cork bark JBP, and I have 8 different Satsuki azalea, but I need a few ones or twos of a range of trees to keep from being bored. Don't narrow your focus too sharp. Do try to have a few areas of focus, either species, or techniques. For example, you could focus on grafting pines as a technique, then as you get good at it, you could trade your pine grafting skills to other bonsai club members in exchange for specimen trees or exceptional pots.

Or you could specialize in an individual species. What ever gets you excited.
 

rockm

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I've killed my share of trees overextending things a bit, so I have an idea of what can and can't be accomplished at certain times of the year with certain species. What I want to focus on is developing very nice and mature material in a methodical and measured way. I could tinker with a nice tree for 10 years and it could still be mediocre at the end of the day. What I want is to learn is how to take that tree to the next level by maximizing my skills. By doing that, my trees will reach their full potential much quicker than if I fly blind by experimenting here and there.
You gotta break some eggs to get an omlette. Best way to stretch yourself is to stretch yourself. Get ADVANCED trees, not something that's going to be good ten years from now. Get something THAT IS GOOD NOW (THE best stock you can un-reasonably afford from an excellent vendor). Work on that to make it better. Work ALONGSIDE more knowledgeable people (not online) on that stock. There are ways to do this and not break the bank. There are also ways like the "boon intensive" that can run up the tab quickly.

Most of all be prepared to kill more trees. I know I've killed more than you would consider reasonable and I'd bet most of the other non-beginners out there will say the same

And BTW, there's much to be said in "flying blind" as sometimes you learn things by improvisation.
 

0soyoung

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Get out of your comfort zone and do some stupid things.
Seriously, this does not mean letting your brain fall out.

If you get honest with yourself, I think you'll discover that you have some unconscious blinders on.

Many of us fret about getting a bud in a certain place to pop and work for years trying to make it happen -- maybe instead of just making a 'stupid' graft.
We tend to think we must do things in a certain way --> I will not use ordinary hedge shears on my trees, ever! I was one such, until I got so frustrated and I did it (ala @Wires_Guy_wires). this was the result.
Etc.

Best way to stretch yourself is to stretch yourself.
What could you do (especially stylistically) that you've just never done because you know you cannot or you think it would be a waste of time? It is usually not the material that holds one back, IMHO, it is the little voices that has never done it but 'knows better'.
 

rockm

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Seriously, this does not mean letting your brain fall out.

If you get honest with yourself, I think you'll discover that you have some unconscious blinders on.

Many of us fret about getting a bud in a certain place to pop and work for years trying to make it happen -- maybe instead of just making a 'stupid' graft.
We tend to think we must do things in a certain way --> I will not use ordinary hedge shears on my trees, ever! I was one such, until I got so frustrated and I did it (ala @Wires_Guy_wires). this was the result.
Etc.


What could you do (especially stylistically) that you've just never done because you know you cannot or you think it would be a waste of time? It is usually not the material that holds one back, IMHO, it is the little voices that has never done it but 'knows better'.
The biggest jump I ever made with bonsai was hacking the living crap out of a tree's roots. I was, like a lot of people, afraid of killing the tree. I finally got really frustrated with trying to get one tree into a pot. I just said "WTF" and chopped the roots off. Tree lived. I found out how far I might be able to push and it turned out it was quite a bit farther than I thought. Of course, I learned that it wasn't a "one size fits all" approach. Killed a couple of nice pines being too aggressive.
 

thams

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@thams
Seriously, ignore the advise to do stupid things. I've cluttered up my yard and life with stupid impulse purchases. They become a time suck, taking time away from material you can actually learn from. As you said, you already have your share of stupid impulse purchases and impulse projects. Now is the time to get serious and focus on learning.

The advise to join a club, or start a study group, is excellent. Get a teacher, mentor or at least a few weekend workshops. The best thing I did for my bonsai, was to join a "master class" series, taught by Ted Matson. Ted came to town 3 times a year, for 3 years, and had all day Saturday sessions with a group of 6 of us. Ted had 6 on Saturday, 6 on Sunday, so the travel expenses and daily fees were shared by 12 of us. Made for a great experience. Then a few years later I did 4 years of a similar arrangement with Peter Tea. Learned tons, and really kicked my bonsai up a notch.

Now I'm living on a fixed income, and I joined a study group, Arbor Arts Collective. We have "no rules" and "no dues" so it has been an inexpensive way to keep my interest up in bonsai. Skill range is across the spectrum in our group, 2 of our group make the 4 times a year trips to Ryan Neil's place, and to a fair degree, bring back what they have learned. So monthly get together's with this group of friends, really helps to keep me learning and refining my technique.

Pick up material of different AGES. Different stages of development. Forego the end of season sales at the big box stores and save up for trees already in advanced stages of development. You won't live long enough to bring all the young stuff through all the stages of bonsai development. From retiring club members, or from estate sales of deceased bonsai club members, you can get "post mature" material to tackle, usually much cheaper than exhibition ready trees. Keep your eyes peeled, while mature trees are expensive, deals that are good value do come along.

Don't get caught in the trap of only working on trees you designed from scratch. Bonsai is a hobby where curating a collection is just as important as learning styling. There is a very valid role in taking tree that one or more different artists have set to a design, and having the vision to continue to develop the tree into the best bonsai you can.

I've tried to specialize, and narrow my collection to just a few species. That never works for me. I need to keep a varied collection. But I try to have a few where I collected multiple trees, for example right now I have 5 different cultivars of cork bark JBP, and I have 8 different Satsuki azalea, but I need a few ones or twos of a range of trees to keep from being bored. Don't narrow your focus too sharp. Do try to have a few areas of focus, either species, or techniques. For example, you could focus on grafting pines as a technique, then as you get good at it, you could trade your pine grafting skills to other bonsai club members in exchange for specimen trees or exceptional pots.

Or you could specialize in an individual species. What ever gets you excited.
I appreciate the thoughtful reply. You're right that I don't want any more impulse buys in my yard. In fact, I'm probably going to be offloading a few trees (and pots) to gain funds for higher quality stuff. I don't have a ton of disposable income with home repairs and two kids in daycare, but I try to make my purchases count. I've been focusing on collecting old and interesting trees and shrubs that folks are pulling up from established yards. This ensures I don't need to wait to thicken trunks, but I will have to rebuild branch structures and fine root masses, which aren't a small or quick tasks.

Maybe later I will be able to afford intensives, but for now I think I'll need to rely on study groups to get my education. There's nothing wrong with that, but there are so many varying opinions and approaches that it can get a little confusing. Still, I gotta start somewhere.

The idea of using native species for bonsai is really appealing to me. Early in my bonsai interest, I loved to keep ficus, but it was such a pain maintaining them in my zone that it really put a damper on the whole bonsai experience for me. Keeping native species has alleviated that frustration, but now that my trees actually grow (as opposed to when I kept ficus inside), I find myself a little overwhelmed with the all things needed to develop them. More "doing" will probably help that.

Specializing in a few species also really appeals to me. It would be cool to be a pseudo authority on a particular species. Most of all I'd love to eventually have a spectacular bonsai garden in my backyard that I can be proud of people visiting.
 

thams

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The biggest jump I ever made with bonsai was hacking the living crap out of a tree's roots. I was, like a lot of people, afraid of killing the tree. I finally got really frustrated with trying to get one tree into a pot. I just said "WTF" and chopped the roots off. Tree lived. I found out how far I might be able to push and it turned out it was quite a bit farther than I thought. Of course, I learned that it wasn't a "one size fits all" approach. Killed a couple of nice pines being too aggressive.
I've been there as well. Doing things like this have taught me a fair amount, but I'm tired of just feeling around to learn what I need to do. For instance, I've hacked some roots of a tree when repotting, and although it lived, I set the tree back at least a year by weakening it too much. That's a frustrating feeling. Of course even very experienced people make mistakes, so I know I'll never not make mistakes in this hobby. BUT, I'd rather be shown certain techniques applied correctly so I don't keep making mistakes that set me back.
 

Calnicky

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My study group (formed with members of Puget Sound Bonsai Association) has been wonderful - probably the best thing for improving my skills. We are technically 8 members, but usually have no more than 5 in attendance. It takes place in my garage. IMPORTANT to the success of the group has been having a "sensei" who can guide our group. (No sense in having the blind lead the blind.) Our teacher has many more years of experience and can help with design, problem solving, and technical stuff. INVALUBLE!
 

thams

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You're more then welcome to swing by and check my trees out... no trees worthy of a national show yet but pretty good none the less, with lot's of multi year projects in the works.
Thank you for the offer - I will definitely take you up on it. I would love to see some of your trees in person, especially those monster yaupons that I've seen you post about. I need some ideas for mine I've been collecting over the past year. More importantly, it would be nice to chat about bonsai with someone from the area. My wife gets tired of hearing me outline plans for my collection. 😆
 
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