For the Beginner Part I

What to do when you get home

By Victoria Petermann

You have been searching in a number of nurseries and now you are back home; your backyard is filled with bushy-looking plants in black bags. What do you do next?

My first suggestion would be to stop worrying about making mistakes. We all make mistakes and often those tum out to be the best decisions. If not, most mistakes can be corrected in time (yes! even cutting off the wrong branch). The most difficult mistake to correct is that of a dead tree, but then you are bound to loose an occasional tree whilst you learn and even some of those can be "revived" by turning them into phoenix-grafts! (this, only a few years down the line when you start hankering for something new).

Before you attack the tree with your pruning shears, I suggest that you study it carefully. First, look for the roots, as they are often buried a few fingers under the ground (Fig. 1a & b). Choose the angle from which they appear best.



Next, look at the trunk and try to establish a line of smooth transition from root to apex. If the plant that you are dealing with only has one trunk, then that is your only option, but don't forget to tilt it to different sides to look for the best line of movement (Fig.2a & b).



Remember that the trunk must taper as it moves toward the apex so that it appears more natural. Sometimes the plant in the black bag comes with a lot of trunks. This at first will appear confusing, but don't forget that this provides a greater number of options to choose from, when it comes to designing the new bonsai (Fig.3, 3a-d).


Some people find it helpful to draw the future bonsai before they start pruning away branches. In this way you can visualize the finished tree and then cut the plant with the confidence of knowing which branches you are going to remove.





The species of plant that you work with will also influence how much you cut off. 1, for example, tend to train maples and most deciduous trees mainly through cutting away unwanted parts and letting other areas grow until they in tum are ready to be cut off (this is known as the "clip-and-grow" method of training trees) and I use wire only to refine the angle of the branches. On the other hand, when I work with junipers and other conifers, I tend to use mostly wire to train the branches, pruning only to create taper in the trunk and in the branches.

It is always good to keep a photographic record of your plants. You will be surprised to see how a couple of years of training can change the appearance of a tree. It is also easier to see the growth of the tree in a photo rather than by looking at the actual tree itself.

As with most other things, with bonsai the more hands-on experience you get, the better and more comfortable you will become. Practice with as many plants as you can and don't rush to put them into pots, they will grow more quickly and stronger if you allow them to grow in a big container (like a plastic basin with holes drilled in the bottom) for the first few years. For this reason you might find it helpful to have a couple of ready-made bonsai in pots (these could be provided by a generous member of the family on the occasion of a birthday or other celebration), so that these can be fussed over and admired while the plants in training have a chance to mature.

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Fearlessly he moulds and

guides the elm tree

to a greater masterpiece

Random Bonsai Tip

Wiring is probably the most commongly used technique for shaping trunk and branches, but it can also be used for thickening the trunk or branches