Everyday you hear a guideline, rule or suggestion about bonsai. Often this is a great idea that you should adopt immediately to help grow or design a better bonsai. On the other hand some of the suggestions seem to fly in the face of common sense. In 1970 I published an article for American Bonsai Society Bonsai magazine called "The Ten Great Bonsai Myths". I recently updated the myths and presented it at the American Bonsai Society Symposium in Kalamazoo Michigan. For those of you that missed the talk I have used it as a starting point for an updated look at my current Ten Greatest Bonsai Fallacies.
1. The older-looking the bonsai, the better it is.
By definition, a bonsai is a trained tree in a container. Years ago when I started in bonsai I would find very young material to work with. Time after time and year after year my advisors would tell me how to make the bonsai look older by doing this and doing that. I concluded, incorrectly, that the goal was to make my tree look as old as possible. This, of course, is completely false.
A bonsai may represent a very young or an ancient nearly dead tree. Neither is better than the other. The success of a bonsai must be measured by other than some preconceived concept of the implied age of the tree that the bonsai represents.
Perhaps, success may be defined by the ability of the artist in achieving the desired appearance of the bonsai. This could be naturalistic, that is, representing a copy of an actual or literal tree, while another artist might design trees that are artistic expressions carried out on a living medium. This last bonsai may not represent a tree but something such as an elephant, a rock even a mood or a feeling. Perhaps, we can not judge the bonsai's success unless we know the artists intention. But one thing is clear, an older-looking bonsai is not automatically better.
2. The myth of the instant bonsai.
Watch this demonstration and you will see an instant bonsai. Or go collecting and get an instant bonsai from nature. I have had this fantasy, and probably deep in my heart I believe that one day I will find the perfect bonsai. One that pops out of the ground and does not require another ten years of careful and thoughtful pruning and wiring to bring it up to snuff.
After seeing many demonstrations and attending innumerable workshops the anticipated instant tree often brings major disappointment especially when it is studied later in the confines of my home. A tree that was breathtaking at 10,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains comes crashing to earth when a saner mind looks at its poor root system and awkward branching structure.
Hope springs eternal, perhaps tomorrow I'll find my perfect little tree. Until then, I will keep working on my less-than-perfect ones.
3. However you wire its wrong!
Bonsai journals and books are full of advice on wiring. You must do this and that. You must use copper or aluminum or else. You must wire or unwire at this time of year or your branches will die. You must not cross wires. You must wire the tree neatly.
I personally believe that you can wire with anything that will hold and shape the branch properly. Whether this is copper or aluminum or anything else is irrelevant. Neatness doe not count unless you want a neat tree or unless you intend to show your tree in its wired state. Time of year doesn't matter to the tree, (exception - do not wire a frozen tree). Leaving wire on all winter does not hurt the branches.
Here are some wiring recommendations that I think are helpful.
Wire when you have time. Wire the branches with loops at 45 degree angles for best holding power.
Wire your trees often and you will have better trees.
Move the branch the absolute minimum number of times to get the position right. Do not wire the branch and then keep bending it and forth to get just the right shape as this will damage the branch with each bend.
If you need to redo the shape wait several months until the branch has healed from its first wiring insult..
Its OK to cross wires, but remember a crossed wire cuts in faster than the uncrossed - so be watchful!
Thin wire will cut in before thick wire - so watch those thin wires carefully.
Always remove wire with a wire cutter. Unwinding wire, unless done very carefully, will disturb newly formed wood that holds the branch in its new position.
4. Cutting branches at the wrong time or in the wrong way.
Many, many times there are suggestions to cut a branch in a certain way or at a certain time or at a specific angle. The story goes that unless you do this the branch will bleed until it dies and/or the tree itself will die. Unless proven otherwise, most injuries or cuts to branches do not result in the death of branch or tree. There are very few and specific examples of trees that do not tolerate severe reductions of branches. This short list includes pines, Ficus benjamina, aspen, and white birch.
In a similar vein much information exists that claims roots must be cut a specific angle or the root will rot. Again ignore this and cut the root at any angle you wish. On some materials the roots will not regenerate if the root has been cut back too far. The angle isn't the critical factor.
5. Follow all the rules, and you will get a bonsai masterpiece!
The truth is that after following all the rules you are much, much more likely to get a turkey than a masterpiece! Creating a bonsai by the rules is like creating pictures using paint by numbers. One should approach bonsai by knowing the rules, and then applying the rules at your own peril. The rules will help you in deciphering why certain bonsai designs do not work; but the rules should never stop your creative instincts. The rules help to train your "eye", but they should never dictate to your eye.
The best example of this are the wonderful wild trees that I have collected over the years. They have a special character provided by the years exposed to elements which shaped their design in unpredictable ways. After some years, I noticed, that many of my collected tress were less exciting than when they were collected. Each year I would remove or refine some "problem" area. After a few years I had ruined the tree but made it more perfectly adherent to the bonsai rules. There is a fine line between perfection and cutting the soul or spirit out of a tree. I failed in keeping the spirit and character of the tree alive.
One technique that I use is to let chance dictate some of my bonsai decisions. For instance, if I have a tree with three branches close together, but only one is needed. I quickly glance at the branches and cut two off. This avoids carefully studying the three branches to see which is exactly, mathematically correct. The quick snip approach avoids the precise "cookie cutter, follow the rules" design that is so sterile.
6. Here's the formula for the perfect soil mix.
As we say in Montana. I don't have the perfect soil mix but ask me again in five minutes and I will. We have been fiddling around with soils for almost thirty years and still the perfect mix eludes us. Because there is no perfect soil mix nor will their ever be! A soil must do many things. It holds your tree mechanically in the pot. It must feed the tree while providing moisture, buffering the temperature, chemicals and environmental stresses. This must vary by the type of tree being grown, by the temperature, light exposure, humidity, wind, size of the container. etc.
To figure out the best soil start by visiting the best bonsai growers in your area. The best growers are defined by the healthiest trees in your locale, not the most impressive recently imported specimens. Ask the growers their soil mix and how they water, and also their sun exposure. Use what works, and then modify it for your specific types of tree and your own backyard micro-climate.
7. There is a perfect or ideal tree.
There is no perfect or ideal tree. Sometimes one hears about an ideal ratio of six times the tree's diameter for the ideal height of your bonsai. This is not any more ideal that 6 feet height for a human being. The proportions of a human or tree depend upon many factors. A pine trees shape is not more desirable than a broom style. Cascade is not better than informal upright. A tree that is designed to represent a 50 year old maple is not better or worse than a tree designed to represent a 600 year old ancient forest tree. Stop listening when someone tells you about the ideal tree. It is no more valid than the ideal wife or husband.
Currently we in the Americas are doing more "natural" appearing trees. This too is a fad, and is not necessarily better than more highly stylized exposed root or other bonsai styles appreciated in the past. Each type of style is just different but not better or worse than another style.
8. Your visiting bonsai expert knows best.
The visiting bonsai artist brings much knowledge to your club. But unless they are from your local area they are probably unfamiliar with your native bonsai materials. They also will be less than knowledgeable regarding cultural aspects suitable to your locale. For this advice stick with your local bonsai talent.
Another gripe with some demonstrators is that their demonstrations produce beautiful looking trees. But they fail to mention that the tree would be better if certain other things were done. For instance a pine is quickly trimmed into bonsai shape. The lowest 1/3 of the trunk is stripped of branches. These branches must be allowed to grow for years to give the bonsai pine any taper. The demonstrator's tree will forever have the same taper that it had on the day of the demo; the trunk may get thicker but the taper will never increase unless low branches are left to thicken the lower trunk.
Another pet gripe is demonstrators that fail to mention that they would never do to a tree what they just did in your demonstration. It would be helpful for the bonsai expert to be honest and tell you up front when they are doing things for demonstration purposes but that they would do it differently if they had more time.
9. Forests or grove must have odd number of trees.
A forest planting can be created with any number of trees. Whether or not this is an even number is irrelevant. If your design is good then the number of trees is not meaningful. If your design does not work than add or subtract trees but do not automatically adjust trees to give you some magical even number. For most beginners the odd numbers are simpler to design into an asymmetrical look that we love. Groves with even numbers of trees may be more balanced, and symmetrical, and therefore less interesting to some observers.
10. Lime sulfur will keep your dead wood from disappearing.
All dead wood will disappear eventually. Anything that we do is only a reprieve before the wood is digested by fungal and bacterial attack. Lime sulfur slows down the decay process but does not halt it. At best, lime sulfur keeps only the outside 1/4 inch of wood firm; underneath the wood continues to deteriorate.
If you have dead wood at the base of your tree keep soil away from the trunk. This will help slow decay. Two, use some penetrating marine epoxy on your important dead wood areas as this seems to plasticize the remaining wood and keep it around for a few more years. Also, we bonsai lovers are currently fascinated with dead wood designs. This current fad is likely to fade as is the wood of our creations. Think long and hard before creating dead wood designs as they are temporary and may even shorten your trees long term survival.
ALWAYS USE COMMON SENSE, ESPECIALLY IF THE ADVICE DOES NOT AGREE WITH YOUR EXPERIENCE.
Plan a fun evening with your bonsai group, and have each participant bring one bonsai fallacy to share. Lots of lively discussion is likely to follow since one person's fallacy is anothers commandment.