My work area is getting worn out. Like my soul.
The black background is really taking a beating, with me breakdancing on it and all. The headspins, windmills and backspins are taking their toll.
And the stainless steel bench….smh. Sorry Dave.
The rust is from me leaving organic fertilizer granules on it overnight.
It’s a good thing I have a tree to work on, I might have to do some real work and sand it down.
Man, the details behind bonsai are hard work.
Pull the weeds, water the trees, clean and maintain the benches, pay the bills.
And the politics…oh boy oh boy do the politics drain the joy out of everything…..considering that we are just playing with little trees here, some few people are vicious in the bonsai world.
Some of it is ego, let’s be honest.
But a lot of bonsai politics has, at it’s roots, a belief that the bonsai world is a zero-sum game (Oh no! I’m letting my slip show with that one). What this means is that people believe there are only so many clubs, nurseries and people who do bonsai and therefore, every sale, every enthusiast, every club member should belong to you.
To put it more plainly: people think that the bonsai world is finite pie to be cut up and you’d better not touch my piece or I’ll call you an ignorant, son-of-a-motherless goat and whisper in everyone else’s ear that you don’t know what you’re talking about.
Little trees fellas.
What we should be working towards is expanding the pie so that there’s enough for all.
What that entails is working with beginners, garden clubs, going on radio/tv shows and volunteering with local bonsai societies. The more people we can get interested, give the correct info to, the more people will progress towards that high end, rare air, stratospheric height that people like Ryan Neil prefer to work at.
Ya’ dig?
That also means working with beginners with trees like the juniper mallsai or those ugly, much maligned, ginseng ficus they sell in box stores.
Like it or not, these trees are the trees that most beginners begin with.
If you call their little tree they’re so proud of a piece of shit, most likely they’ll resent you a little.
I had a customer today who came by with a “ginseng” ficus.
Her name is Carlene and she called up because she was concerned that the leaves were falling off.
When she got here I started with the questions.
Where do you keep it?
How often are you watering it?
How are you watering it?
Of course, she was keeping it inside. She was watering correctly (pouring the water on the top of the soil) but it had the ubiquitous glued on rocks on the top of the soil and it was planted in, unexpectedly, two pots, with a drip pan and in totally organic. There wasn’t even perlite in the soil.
My diagnosis for the falling leaves was: inadequate light and too much water.
I explained about minimum light requirements, had her pick out a proper pot and I repotted it for her into my soil mix.
I then styled it for her.
Here it is.
She had picked out a decent tree with good taper and branches in the right place. The tree from the front isn’t so bad but…,
Like many beginners, she had gone online to try to diagnose her trees problem and it was there where she discovered that her tree was considered, by general consensus, to be a shit tree and not a real bonsai.
We talked about this and I walked her around my nursery to show her what her tree could become.
I showed her these two trees.
These are just one year repotted and rescued from a box store shelf.
How’s this?
Or this?
Imagine one more year. Or five.
That’s the thing about bonsai, they take time.
Her tree is already starting to mature.
Give it two years, with the proper care, and it’ll be fantastic.
If she chose to grow it bigger (putting it in a big pot or in the ground) she could end up with this tree.
I think I’ll work on it in the next post.
So what did I charge Carlene for the work? I do bonsai for a living after all. If you wander around the site you’ll see find my rates. She was here for about two hours.
I only charged her $15.
Basically just for the pot and for the soil.
Why? I coulda made enough for a trip to the market to feed my four children.
But, I could see, in her, a spark, a tiny ember of interest that was almost extinguished because some troll on an Internet forum called her tree shit.
They called it a houseplant with no hope of ever being a real bonsai.
Tell me something, answer me this, motherfuckers: why do you feel the need to belittle beginners and their trees?
Is it to make you feel better about your pathetically mediocre trees? Did the boss laugh at your bonsai collection when you were sharing photos of them? Does your wife compare your penis size to your shohin?
I don’t understand the need to make fun of other people’s trees (except when there’s a full-of-shit bonsai professional bragging about his trees, it’s in all of our best interests to knock those fuckers down a notch).
Ok, enough ranting, I think I’ve made my point. How about a “ginseng” ficus that’s beyond the norm?
You’ve seen the tree before. I can’t find the post.
I know!
Let’s have a contest.
The first person who finds the original post this tree was in and links to it in my blogs comment section gets an Adam’s Art and Bonsai T-shirt.
I’ve wired it a little but mostly just let it grow.
Oh…from now on I will not use the term “ginseng ficus”. These trees are really the original, non hybrid form of ficus microcarpa.
They are also grown from seed, which explains the caudex-like root base that gives the tree it’s common name “ginseng”.
If you grow them as cuttings they don’t get the bulbous roots.
I’ve let it get weedy and out of shape.

The wire’s cut in a little too.
I’ve had the tree in its training pot for almost two years, it’s time for an upgrade. One of these two pots.
I’m also keeping the rootage as simple as possible. Which means that these roots are going bye bye.
But first, (if you’re a frequent reader of the blog you’ll know the drill) some defoliation.
And some judicious trimming.
Some of the growing tips will be left alone to continue the elongation of that specific branch.
Like this one.
Letting a branch get long thickens it faster.
On other branches, I’m cutting the growing tip.
The red circle is the growing tip. The orange slash is where I’ll cut the branch.
I’ve been asked why I trim first, then repot, and then rewire.
Simple, it’s easier to clean up before potting the tree, you don’t get leaves in the new soil
And I wire after potting so I don’t have to readjust the wires after putting the tree in the pot.
Let’s look at the roots.
It’s time to repot.
And clean up the crossing ones.
You may think that a ficus bonsai is required to have random and tangled roots.
Nah, I disagree.
Sometimes tangled and messy roots work in the design.
Most times, like here, they don’t.
They are contrary and jarring to the root base’s flow into the soil.
How can you not agree?
See this root?
Even though the tree will fit in the pot as is, the root should be cut back.
It’s only the small, feeder roots that are useful. The big roots only provide support in the ground. When you cut them back they’ll push out new roots all along the cut edge.
The next big decision is: which pot?
This one?
Or this one?
I like the naturalness of the second one.
It goes with the raw sexiness of the tree.
Oh yeah, curves baby.
And now some wire.
When I first styled it it was pretty sparse but it’s filling in nicely. Lots of branching to work with.
From above.
I’m in love!
Well….sorry for the long, rambling post. I’m kinda passionate at times.
It all turned out well in the end though. You got to see a cool tree.
And I think that the tree takes the idea of a “ginseng” ficus and retires it.

32 thoughts

  1. Amen Brotha! With Bonsai as in all forms of art there are always critics. There is a place for that at some level where we knowingly invite and welcome feedback, but in general if a piece of art (or tree) brings someone happiness that’s all that matters and we should nurture that feeling—not chop it down. And don’t we all know how that feeling grows!


  2. well said. Had a great little 3rd grader come to our fall bonsai show. He asked all kinds of questions. Was REALLY interested. Spent at least 30 minutes with him. I gave him my card, and told him to call ANYTIME! Our next meeting, guess who was there..yep. Stayed the whole time-even on a school night. Gave him a couple little gifts, courtesy of the club. He was so excited. Invited him to my home. Hope his parents bring him over. gonna give him a little ficus. Point being, if he had come in contact with the wrong person, who had brushed him off, as Adam said-poof! that spark would have been extinguished. I have seen members too many times, during private workshops, say to the public who poke their head in to see whats going on, state “This is a private event!” good way to turn people off. We should def keep growing the pie, so more people can get involved. I don’t believe you can have too many interested in bonsai. Besides being a great mental health hobby, the best things about bonsai are the people. We must not let a few ruin it for others.


  3. I totally agree. Have to rush about today and tomorrow setting up a bonsai exhibit for Kofu Bonsai Kai at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana CA. I’d like to comment on this post when I have the time to think. Reaching out to those people with the ‘spark’ is what I do and what Kofu Kai’s mission is. I’ve heard all the flak and bs and macho posturing and it’s just irrelevant to what I try to do. My personal site is and it’s there just for those people who might want to do this crazy thing.

    Carol Upston President, Kofu Bonsai Kai and general nutcase

    Oh yes, I’m also having to get rid of all of my ginseng ficus because we have a plague of tree rats that are devouring them. It’s too bad because they were a perfect beginner tree, much better than little junipers.


  4. Great rant, Adam. I mean it; good and necessary. As a beginner, I have been fortunate to associate with some very nice and helpful bonsai folks who have allowed me the freedom to decide which of my trees are pieces of shit, and there are many. But, having said that, they are mostly “learning trees” and not to be dissed by “professionals”. We don’t all have the resources or money or skills to own finished or nearly finished trees. so POS’s are important to most of us. Maybe they will surprise us and become pretty nice trees, in time. After all, we need to appreciate them first and foremost.
    I really enjoy your blogs, as much for what and how you say things as for the lessons you teach us. Keep it up.
    I may be in Florida for a “drive-about” in November so would very much like to visit your place. Can that be arranger? I’m assuming you see these comments, and I believe you may.
    One question – was your comment about Ryan Neal a positive or negative?
    Take care, dude and keep it up.
    Vern Maddox
    Just south of Houston


    1. Thanks Vern, just shoot me an email of when you’ll be in Florida and we can try to make it work.
      As far as the comment about Ryan being positive or negative, it was not really either. Ryan is trying to advance the art of bonsai in America and he has some ideas as to how that should happen. He is, at least trying whereas some just want to be top dog in the yard.


      1. Glad to hear that about Ryan, I have taken classes from him in Oregon and he is a dedicated teacher as well as being dedicated to improving American bonsai in every area. He and his wife Chelsea are some of the nicest, caring people I have ever met. And, Ryan would NEVER call anyone’s bonsai a POS.
        I’ll definitely contact you when I get to Florida. Just for info., what is the nearest town to your shop?
        Mucho Aloha,


  5. Just wanted to say I enjoy reading your stuff. Im a ficus lover from beaumont tx and can’t wait till my next trip to Florida. Guna stop by and check your place out. I have a green island triple trunk that I am stumped by. Its fine ass hell banyan style but thinking it mite make three nice trees. Anyways its in a grow out pot till I decide. Thanks Corey Dorsey


  6. Dang, looks like sikadelic found the “original post” to earn the shirt. (For what it’s worth, I’ll buy a t-shirt if you have them for sale.)

    Great post and a very cool tree. Thanks for sharing as always.


  7. Wow! Adam you damn near made me cry and stand up while reading this blog, You just made me love you more than I already did, in a non sexual way of course.The exact thing happened to me and I watch it happen to others every day on bonsai reddit.I fight for these guys everytime I see somebody make some horrible reply to some excited happy ready to jump in head first bonsai enthusiasts that just purchased they’re first tree from Walmart and of course it’s a ginseng ficus, or a tiny juniper and they get mutilated by arrogant assholes. No most people’s first tree is not going to be some $500.00 work of art, it’s just like any other hobby or collection, you start out cheap and as you become more comfortable and experienced than you swap out your Nolan Ryan card for a Babe Ruth.Im going to tell ya, you start out with a $300.00 tree and it dies you are going to have a very very bad taste in your mouth and will more than likely never buy another tree, but if that $10.00 ficus dies you will look into what you did wrong and probably go buy another one.Im sorry by the way for ranting and this smorgasbord of sloppiness I call writing but I have been up for 24 hours at the hospital because my wife just delivered our baby girl, and Adam this is John Cullum from facebook, I’m the one working on getting you to memphis and you are helping me when you get time with the pictures of my ficus retusa I sent you on facebook.Brother your my favorite for more reasons than being a talented musician and bonsai artists, oh and a excellent blogger.Thank you for being a great person, I wish more of the bonsai community followed your example and thank you for sticking up for the little guy’s, hopefully everyone on reddit reads this blog and thinks about what they say and realizes that they’re cruel and smart ass remarks does more damage than they think.I just thought of one last thing, I get asked all the time why everybody that does bonsai is so cocky and arrogant, can you answer that for me, lol.Thank you Adam.Your biggest fan. John cullum


    1. First, John, I’d like to say congratulations on the new arrival!
      It’s humbling to think you read my blog so close to the birth of your daughter. Thank you.
      I’m hoping the blog has a difference, we shall see.
      And I don’t know why some people are cocky and arrogant in bonsai. I try not to be unless I have to in self defense.


  8. Excellent post Adam! I totally agree. This post is just goes to show why your blog is one of the best bonsai blogs going. I’ve met a few of the ass-clowns you talk about and wow, do they have issues. I’m VP of the Cape Fear Bonsai Society here in NC, and I go out of my way to help the newbies.

    You’re exactly right when you talk about the ‘spark’ of bonsai. It’s so easy for the spark to go out with newbies. Most of the folks I see get so discouraged when their trees die and they just want to give up. I do my best to tell them that killing trees is the price of admission and it happens to everyone, even the most accomplished bonsai practitioners.

    I don’t know if he actually said it or not, but I had always heard that John Naka said “You have to kill 1000 trees to become a bonsai master”. I tell folks that every chance I get and it seems to help.

    I hope to see you at JoB, you gonna be there in Jan?


    1. Thanks Christen, my aim is to share the techniques I know with everyone who reads.
      As far as I know, I will be at Joy of Bonsai this January. I have already contacted Louise Leister, the VP of Kawa and have been assured that I have a spot.
      Looking forward to seeing you there and thanks again


  9. I’m sorry you ended up catching so much flak for this post. This “ginseng” ficus of yours is my favourite tree I’ve ever seen. I don’t really care if it fits in traditional archetypes – it’s beautiful. It has flow and movement and drama. Looking at it makes me happy, and that’s really all I care about.


  10. Hi Adam,
    I’ve been seriously growing plants for 3 decades this year ( I got a young start ). Never gave much consideration to bonsai, for many years growing up I had seen people w/ stands on the side of the road selling bonsai, but never stopped to look. I ( for some reason ) always had the mind set that they were over priced tiny trees, never even considering WHAT they were.

    In the spring of 2014 I was checking out at Walmart & next to the register was a stand full of the strangest looking little trees, at the last minute I quickly sorted through them & bought one. It wasn’t until I got home, that I noticed a label on the bottom that said ” bonsai Ginseng ficus “, suddenly that triggered something in my brain… Curiosity!!

    Of course w/ my horti background, I knew to remove the glued on rocks, then after seeing the soil & roots, I transplanted it into potting soil.

    This was the beginning of my bonsai journey.

    Frantically, I began researching, went out & bought a cool little pot & a little bag of ” Ficus & sub-tropical bonsai soil ” ( which looked like gravel ). Since it was so expensive, I tried diluting it w/ potting soil, which I later learned was wrong.
    Anyway, I loved the look of the ” Ginseng ” Ficus so much that I bought 4 more over the next few months & a 6th just a few months ago.
    I have found that there are two different kinds available, first: the naturally grown, second: the tree’s w/ ” Ginseng ” root stock & what appears to be Green Island ficus bark grafts ( which I prefer ).

    So yes, I’ve heard many people trashing these trees, calling them ” shit, mallisai ” & unfit for bonsai material. I strongly disagree. Have these people ever seen a specimen grade tree of this type? If so, they would probably call it by it’s correct botanical name, making it sound like it’s a different tree.

    Anyway, one year ago I began my bonsai journey and never looked back, I’ve been researching almost non stop ever since. I currently make my own soils & am the proud owner of 17 bonsai trees of 9 different types

    This is a unique, life long learning process, sooooooo much to learn.



  11. Hey! New here… Not waiting to bug, but…I have a question about the Ficus Ginseng. I have 2 of them, I bought my first one 6 months ago, an the second one 1 month ago. They are doing really great, I repoted one of them in the spring, and left the second one like it was, because it seems to have some space left to grow. My question is, if they look great, strong, shiny leaves and wide, it’s really necessary to trim them? I don’t really want to.. I was thinking on letting them grow like “wild” trees, I like their look. They aren’t loosing leaves. And i’m not really into shaping them and making them some kind of bonsai… If someone would be nice enough to answer my question, I would appreciate that. Greetings


    1. You can let them grow as you like. Creating bonsai is a specialized growing technique that has, at its goal, making a small, relatively young plant look like an old, big tree. The process we use is just for that. You can even plant your tree in the ground and get a full size tree.


      1. Well, thank you for your reply. I always had that doubt because from what I’ve read, I need to trim some branches in order to make them grow stronger, not thin… I guess I am going to wait few months, or maybe a year o see how it goes, and if I really need to, I will cut some leaves and branches to make it stronger… I’m really not good with it, I can’t see myself modifying a tree…lol! But I will definitely wait and see. As for planting it into the ground, I will surely do it when I will own a house (currently living in an apartment). Thank you, again. I really admire your work, dedication and patience. Such a wonderful art. Greetings


  12. Old post but always actual, unfortunately. Usually ficus ginseng trees are often the easiest and cheapest way to start. I don’t know in USA, but here in Italy you can easily find them in supermarket for 10\15 euros. And that, in my opinion, is a good way to start because they can teach you some basic horticulture lessons and they can allow you to understand if you really like to have a bonsai. Of course we all not agree, for example there are people who just think that junipers should be used for a first approach, but everyone has a different way to the bonsai world. There are begineers and pros, rich lovers and poor ones, and everyone deserves respect. I am noticing, especially in this year, that social media society is becoming more and more cruel with beginners’ dreams, full of disrespect for beginners’ trees or just for common trees. I don’t know of that happens just because it’s easy to hide behind a keyboard of if It’s just the “way of life” of a lot of bonsai-ists… Actually, both options are very sad in my opinion. Bonsai world should take it easy… We are not in a death race…


    1. I agree with you, “ginseng” are the easiest beginner trees.
      People are very bold behind their keyboards, belittling beginners almost seems like a way to make themselves bigger.
      My favorite expression I use is “they’re just little trees”


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