A Long-Term Plan

Posted by on Jul 14, 2015 in Articles And Stories, From the President
A Long-Term Plan

Most of what BSSF does as an organization is to foster the development and learning of bonsai enthusiasts. Bonsai is a long-term endeavor, one that takes persistence and patience.

BSSF in currently in the planning stages to launch a series of programs beginning in January 2016 that will focus on long-term development and long-term planning. The programs will use readily-available nursery material as a starting point and will aim to begin to create high-quality bonsai over a period of two years. While there will be an end to the program series, that will not be the end of the process for the trees that are involved. Keep your eye on our announcements for more information.

What should a bonsai styling and growing plan look like and how do you create it so it will predict the future of a tree? Long-term planning is not new in bonsai, but good documentation methods for long-term planning have not been prevalent in recent times. One of the most interesting things that the oft-quoted John Naka did during his storied career as a bonsai teacher was to sketch the future that he saw in the trees that students brought to workshops and classes. These sketches sometimes still show up as a framed piece of art sitting next to a tree in a show that looks significantly different but is obviously the same tree many years later.

An old juniper at the 2014 REBS show with a sketch from long ago created by John Naka.   While it's possible to predict the near term and even a few years out, many trees will change greatly over the course of decades of bonsai care.

An old juniper at the 2014 REBS show with a sketch from long ago created by John Naka. While it’s possible to predict the near term and even a few years out, many trees will change greatly over the course of decades of bonsai care.

Many good bonsai teachers will take a glance at a plant and immediately formulate a solid plan for it’s future in their minds; but communicating that plan to a student is something that can be both laborious and difficult without the right tools. The idea of sketching the future of a tree is a good way to communicate a lot of the changes that will be made. Combining the design sketch with a step-by-step plan for how to accomplish major changes can lead to a good understanding between the instructor and student about how the material can be turned into a good bonsai.

Here is an example of planning for a multi-year period. It involves using subtractive styling techniques like heavy cutback and it also uses additive styling techniques like extended growing and refinement of branching to build missing structure. Before starting any styling of a tree, consider the health. The first thing that you typically need to do to a nursery-grown plant is repot it to begin training the roots and to improve the health. Once the tree is healthy begin styling.

A photograph of a young piece of Kishu juniper nursery stock and a simplified sketch representing the trunk line and major branching.    Subtracting out all the distracting surrounding can give clarity about what trunk line might be most suitable to your taste or the best style for the future if the tree.   This tree has about a 1" trunk and could eventually be styled to be a good shohin given the right planning.

A photograph of a young piece of Kishu juniper nursery stock and a simplified sketch representing the trunk line and major branching. Subtracting out all the distracting surrounding can give clarity about what trunk line might be most suitable to your taste or the best style for the future if the tree. This tree has about a 1″ trunk and could eventually be styled to be a good shohin given the right planning.

Subtractive styling - two of the major branches have been eliminated and jins have been created.   Additionally, some bark sections are removed to begin to create some more age in the tree.

Subtractive styling – two of the major branches have been eliminated and jins have been created. Additionally, some bark sections are removed to begin to create some more age in the tree.

After the first styling session this tree is going to look pretty stripped. Cutback is needed to induce new branching low on the trunk because the small sprouts have died off. There are dormant buds at the base of each of those branches that will begin growing if you cut back the long leaders. The plan should include an extended period of growing, with good sun, water and fertilizer to return the plant to optimal health before more work is performed. Once the buds are growing, and the tree has replaced some of the lost foliage you can further reduce the last large branch to further encourage the low growth.

Additive styling - once the old long and large branches are removed, typically small sprouts will appear on the trunk.   Letting these grow will give you the material you need to create a branch structure.   In this sketch the branching is represented without foliage for clarity.   The process of growing the branching on a very small tree may only take a couple years.

Additive styling – once the old long and large branches are removed, typically small sprouts will appear on the trunk. Letting these grow will give you the material you need to create a branch structure. In this sketch the branching is represented without foliage for clarity. The process of growing the branching on a small juniper may take only a couple years.

A possible future for this tree.   After removing some bark, and getting the sprouts to grow from the trunk you can create branch pads and a crown to compliment the trunk.   Since the trunk is only 1" or so, the tree will only be 5-6" in height.

A possible future for this tree. After removing some bark, and getting the sprouts to grow from the trunk you can create branch pads and a crown to compliment the trunk. Since the trunk is only 1″ or so, the tree will only be 5-6″ in height.

As with any plan, this is only one possible future for the tree. It is something to use as a guide; as the tree changes the plan can be adapted to take advantage of the new conditions.

When styling your trees, try to make a plan for what you want the tree to look like in a few years. Then work with what you have to create your vision.