In short, yes!
This is an old question that comes up from time to time. Eric Schrader mentioned that he’s fielded the question more than once in recent weeks, and the idea has got me thinking. If it feels to you like bonsai is getting harder, here’s what might be going on.
More experts = more things to worry about
As the bonsai scene outside of Japan matures, we now have more teachers in more parts of the world contributing to the compendium of knowledge on the topic of small trees.
This is great, but it can be overwhelming if we take every tip or warning as a siren call to stop what we’re doing and try something new.
In just the last month, for example, we received a warning about a common soil ingredient and detailed instructions about how to make chopsticks.
Are our trees going to die if we don’t change our repotting habits immediately? Probably not.
Regarding the latter tip, I like using bamboo chopsticks of different sizes and find that they’re super helpful for repotting trees of different sizes.
As for the former, there are some great takeaways here that we can apply to all of our soil ingredients. I’ve been using more lava rock in the garden recently as it’s affordable where I live and it produces some of the most vigorous growth I’ve seen after three decades of experimenting with different soil mixes.
The most vigorous pine in the garden is growing in 100% lava rock
Are all sources of lava the same? No – there are different minerals in scoria that comes from different mines. Does washing lava rock before use make a difference? Yes! The dust in lava can cause problems from mineral overload to simply holding too much water in the mix. I’d never recommend using dusty lava rock without rinsing it first – and I recommend the same approach for overly dusty pumice.
Do roots look the same that grow in different soils? No – different soils can produce different root growth and different foliar growth. Aligning the soils we use with our development goals can help us get the most out of our soil mixes.
If you’re still trying to home in on the perfect mix for your trees, do some research, check with people who get great results in your area, and prepare to try something new in the next repotting season.
And if you haven’t seen problems with your soil mixes or repotting techniques, there may not be any need to change what you’re doing.
Better trees require better technique
Twenty years ago I had a handful of trees that looked like bonsai and a whole lot of young pines in the garden. At most only a few of my trees needed intermediate-level structural work (primary and secondary branches) and the rest simply needed to stay healthy and grow.
Now that more of my trees have full silhouettes, much more work is required to continue develoment.
Young pines – not much wiring happens at this stage
More mature pines require much more work throughout the year
If your garden requires more days wiring, pruning, or plucking than it did a few years ago, you’re probably doing something right!
The perennial challenge of finding quality material for bonsai
As more people develop an appetite for quality trees, it can feel harder to find good material to develop.
For example, bonsai beginners can learn a lot from working with nursery stock. One gallon or five gallon junipers are great for learning the basics of watering, pruning, and wiring.
Several years on, hobbyists might start looking for more developed material to work on or outstanding trunks to develop. By almost any measure, finding these trees is “harder” than heading down to the local garden center.
A great find for someone getting started
A great find for someone with more experience (or ambition!)
This has been true for as long as I’ve been in bonsai, but what may be different now is that there’s more desire for higher quality trees. And until supply catches up with demand, it’ll be challenging for collectors to get their hands on the material they’re so excited to work with.
My response to this challenge is simple: create more of your own material!
The growing community is working hard to supply pre-bonsai for beginner and intermediate enthusiasts, and bonsai professionals are producing as many great trees as they can. Supporting our growers and our professional community will stimulate production but even this will only meet a fraction of the current demand for material.
Whether you start with collected material, field-grown pre-bonsai, or you grow trees from scratch, these are our best options for creating the material we want to work on. It’s why I’m passionate about helping people grow trees at all stages of development because without this effort there simply won’t be as many trees available to work with!
Are you finding bonsai harder these days? Is the weather, conflicting advice, or the increased sensitivity of mature trees proving much more challenging than it was a few years ago?
Let us know about it in the comments below.
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Fred McMullen says
What I find after 40 years of Bonsai is my trees must be treated differently than when they were younger. I am always being interested in many others experience but it rare to find teachers of present talking about ‘old’ tree care. Mostly creating new or restyling a tree is what they are doing. My trees look fine I just want to keep them that way.
Jonas Dupuich says
That’s a great point, Fred – I think there’s room for a lot more education about the maintenance work required to keep nice trees nice!
Scott Roxburgh says
Agree on all the points that you have mentioned Jonas, however the main one that we can’t fix in the short term is superior stock material. Most of my bonsai time these days is spent growing cutting kishu, itoigawa, and seedling pines and maples. It really is hard to create good stock in large quantities, many just don’t turn out well so are sold young or forgotten and deteriorate further.
Jonas Dupuich says
That’s right – it’s solvable but not within the time frame in which we’d like to see it solved. And not only is it hard to crank out good material in quantity, it’s hard to get trees that are half-way there closer to the goal as it takes a lot of work!
Dan Morton says
Hi Jonas ,
You hit the nail on the head with this article , I think the soil mixes are of the biggest topics these days , just ran into a guy with a tree collection well call pre bonsai , Giant Sequoia , live oak , Jap Maple (Ryusen) , he got them on-line over the past 5 years . It’s spring time here in Ia and the tree’s are just waking up . He was concerned with there health as a few didn’t look good , and doing the finger test they were soaked and setting on concrete ,he asked for suggestions , I suggest setting them up off the ground on bricks or pallets and repotting them , he did set them up that day and I stopped back by the nursery this week and he indicated that there was a water trail for two days , and the tree’s had began to green up , and then the soil topic came up . I explained my soil to him Aka , pumice ,lava . And that I start there and add or delete ingredients for the tree , and for me , I have gotten to a point that I now use more Akadama / Lava , I base this on the fact that I seldom see tree roots growing into pumice / but always into lava .
Joe T says
Thank you Jonas, these are all great points! But what about the days when the only sources of info were Japanese books that you shared with friends, and tried to decipher the pictures. Now there is so much information available, doesn’t it make it a lot easier and the the reason for much higher level bonsai across the board? Thank you for the thought provoking subjects.
Jonas Dupuich says
I think that’s exactly right, we have way more sources for great information – and it shows! Of course, I still poke through Japanese publications regularly trying to decipher what’s going on…
Erich Raudebaugh says
Yes, it’s getting harder but that’s a good thing. That means I’m progressing. I’ve taken classes and workshops with professionals over the last few years to try to learn as much as I can.
Some of my trees are finally getting into the refinement stage, which isn’t easy and there’s conflicting information even among the pros. I’d like to have some trees that are show quality without buying them already ‘done’, and I’m finding that this part of bonsai is the most challenging.
Vance hanna says
Wow! Jonas good article!
Seems that nearly 50 years have gone by a lot faster than I really anticipated. Yes with my limited early on information I now have been overwhelmed with what the internet has produced. Some great but some not so.
If it works, does what it supposed to do … the old adage “ if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”.
‘Bout the only change I’ve made is to reduce to almost 0 the amount of organic matter in most of my mix.
Thanks for putting this to print!
Wes Jones says
Great article Jonas – it’s clear that American bonsai needs to make some progress on growing healthier trees. I don’t speak to many hobbyists that don’t struggle with disease or health issues, and the solutions tend to be to hammer it with chemicals. I wish there was more consensus among professionals on water quality, watering methods, soil types for certain climates or species, fertilizing, etc. I see a lot of hobbyists that spend thousands of dollars on material, pots, supplies, professional work, travel to shows and workshops…but won’t spend $150 on a water filter system. (Anecdotally, moving to a much higher akadama % in my soil mix and using RO water has done amazing things for the health of my trees). I hope we start to see a shift in focus to growing healthy, disease free trees in the future and keep the supply of quality material at higher numbers.
Jonas Dupuich says
Thanks, Wes – couldn’t have said it better!
John C DeMaegd says
I’ve been growing Bonsai long enough to see my big box store buys become something nice, as well as buying from the vendors at Bonsai shows too. I see our American market becoming like the other countries, with some growing starts and with guys like me creating amazing middle developed material. Then you’ll have a group of professionals who develop that into gems!
Terence Krista says
Thanks for the article Jonas. I don’t know if bonsai has become harder but you make a good point on all the information that is out there, espceially online. And it does get confusing. The endless converstions on the best soil mix, copper vs. aluminum, best time to cut back, repot, wire. This is a big country and not one size fits all. How one approaches bonsai will not be the same for someone in the Bay Area, Georgia or upstate New York. Are your summers hot and rainy or cool and dry, winters mild or deathly cold? When does spring arrive in your zone. I believe the one true constant in bonsai is that it gets you outside, observant of nature and in touch with growing plants. It sharpens your artistic eye, calms the nerves and reduces stress which in the end is what I think this pursuit of bonsai is all about.
Brian S says
Over 40 years of working on bonsai has confirmed a proverb that Mitsuya once told me, The farther that you travel along the path the narrower and steeper it becomes. Working on older trees is very time intensive.
Andy Bartram says
Thank for this
Concerning the part about teachers (experts) I have been to two workshops, by two different teachers, in the last year. Both of these are well respected over here in the UK. The difference of opinion on some things was vast and contradictory. I have been doing bonsai for over twenty years so can make my own mind up as to what I believe is right but to a beginner this could come across as very confusing.
As you said another point of contention is soil types. I often use cat litter (molar clay) in my mixes which I never have a problem with but to some it’s like I am giving the tree some kind of poison.
Just look at the candle on that pine! It Is Enormous.
Finding a teacher(s) who actually know what they are doing is one of the more difficult things to locate in the hobby tbh. There a ALOT of 7-10 year “pros” even 30 year pros who just been doing the wrong stuff year upon year and because the trees are living convinced their way works and are unable to be convinced otherwise. If you are new and get in with someone who is passionate but hasn’t learned the techniques properly you can waste 5 years easy that you then have to unlearn and relearn the right way. If you get in the hobby at retirement age this really caps the ceiling on your potential. The Internet has convinced ALOT of people they worth 100-150 bucks a person workshop when they can’t show 1 finished tree in their collection. This is what’s making the hobby harder I think, there are way more “pros” in name only since the pandemic spreading wrong/bad info so imo appreciate the real ones who do have the right experience that have proven able to replicate what they’re teaching and can show multiple sick trees they’ve designed from ground up that can stand to in person, up close scrutiny. The people who can do this are very few and very far between in this country.
I just wanted to comment and say that I have been a silent observer here for a while now. The wealth of knowledge I have learned from this blog is something I will never forget. I’m 27 years old and have started about 200 pines from seed this year with the plan to keep developing and selling pre-bonsai eventually. I just enjoy the process and love seeing the different genetics of the trees I’m working with (scots pine, JBP, JRP, and lacebark pine).
Lamont Jackson says
I’ve been doing this art for a while. It’s been 23yrs. now and I’ve never had more interest in anything.
Yes bonsai has been the best way to learn about each tree and the way they grow.
Our imagenation to position them in the way we see them nature.
Watching them mature in the design’s that would create wonderful memories.
Yes; it’s getting harder for the knowledge of horticulture is getting more fascinating. Manipulating trees and designing them for our future relatives will finish for us.🤔
Nice article Jonas. Regarding information availability, I’ve noticed the same thing in other plant hobbyist groups.
There is a general lack of scientific method in working out what works. Most of us , myself included , don’t know how, nor have the means to conduct proper controlled experiments on scale to make the results credible.
It’s possible the genetics of a plant might be outstanding and the real reason for its vigorous growth. Meantime each of us believe we’ve cracked the secret formula to growing that species and think our fingers are green just because we have a small handful of healthy examples. Thanks again for this site , you are one of my picks to follow on this learning journey.
Jonas Dupuich says
Thanks, Giscard – I’ve been doing mostly controlled experiments with soil for years now and my main takeaway is that it’s complicated 🙂 Will keep working at it!
Thank you so much for all your posts . I have been reading them for a long time.
I have a problem with my junipers. They seem like having cankers disease. Would you please to give me an advice that I can treat them?
Thank you so much
Jonas Dupuich says
Thanks, Nguyen! As for the junipers, here’s some info on canker causes and treatment: https://ipm.ucanr.edu/PMG/GARDEN/PLANTS/DISEASES/cankerdiseases.html