As I continue along on my bonsai journey, I find myself enjoying many more trees than I used to. That might lead you to believe that my criteria for bonsai have somewhat softened, but I think you’d find that quite the opposite is true. My standards for my own bonsai are always increasing to follow my bonsai knowledge. But the knowledge that I gain changes my perception of what a quality bonsai really is. One characteristic that has really been driven home in the past couple of years is the value of age, and why the Japanese put such esteem on it. Certainly as things become older, they become more rare, and thus more valuable. Or maybe they just become junk. We don’t tend to revere age in our society the way that many others do. We are about youth. We tend to ignore the wisdom of our elders and go for the quick fix. But when it comes to bonsai, things should be different.
I have always liked larger trees, as many of you well know. But growing them big takes time. Sometimes centuries. I am growing a bunch of deciduous and flowering trees in the ground in my back yard. The temptation is to let them grow really fast and really thick. In reality, if I do that, I get these straight segments of trunk that are joined with harsh angles and no transitions. The trees look very artificial, very obvious, and decidedly uninteresting. You’ve seen a hundred like them before. The roots also grow thick and useless. So I must balance the rapid growth in the ground with regular and strategic pruning to get satisfying results. And it IS happening.
If you have heard our excellent recent speakers, John Thompson and Ted Matson, they both commented on the same idea. We have to use some wire, a little technique, and a lot of patience. I am always delighted at this time of year to check out the progress of the trees after all of the leaves have dropped. It’s like unwrapping my Christmas presents a bit early. Each year, I am slowly managing to dig a few up and get them into pots. The trouble is that I really want them two or three times the size – which means another five or ten years in the ground, then another five years to develop a decent branch structure before I could even think about it as a showable tree. More time. But there is another way!
You can shorten the timeline by letting someone else do the work. You can buy a tree that has already been developed, whether it’s a raw trunk, or fully developed, you’ll be years ahead. What you are really buying is not a tree, but time. Time is our most valuable asset – we give it to employers and customers in exchange for money. So hopefully, when you turn that cash back into trees, you are buying quality time. Years that someone spent carefully and knowledgeably developing the tree.
Sometimes I buy a tree just because it is old. I will have to start over with the styling and might have to develop new branches, but what I am buying is a thirty year head start on the bark of the trunk. With age also comes character. Branches die, insects invade, the dog chews on it, birds pick at its roots. All manner of events contribute to the persona of our trees and it is the tree’s visual record of these events that makes them interesting. Our job is to bring out the unique parts of each tree and maximize it’s potential, whether it’s a new seedling or an ancient monarch.