Let’s talk bonsai….just what is it?

When I was a yungun’ and being learned in thinking and reasoning, I was told to begin at the beginning. So that is where I shall begin (don’t worry, it has to do with the tree above, but sometimes, the long way is the short way, so to speak).

Now, a bonsai, if you literally translate it, is a plant in a tray. Adding some context and anglicizing it, it’s a tree in a pot. One could add the spiritual nature of bringing nature into the garden (Japanese gardens tend to be very small, hence the miniaturization of the trees). But, since I’m a teacher and writer, I have a much better, stock answer.

Bonsai… (imagine this spoken in an expounding, neo-Shakespearean manner, with sweeping hand gestures and wide spaced feet)….BONSAI is…. The Art of taking a relatively small, and relatively young plant, and making it, through various horticultural and artistic techniques, look like a big, old, tree! (What’s funnier is if you imagine one of the old Looney Tunes characters saying that……like Foghorn Leghorn…”I said, boy, you know…I said, Bonsai is, ah, the art, you know, THE ART…you listening boy, I said, the art of taking, you see boy, a small and young, ah, plant…….”)

Now, we ask ourselves this question, “How does one do this?”

Well….by using various artistic and horticultural techniques, of course….aha! Well, we have the artistic: proportion, perspective, and framing. Framing is the container and the pot, proportion is the placement of the first, the second and successive branches. How far up from the soil level (look up the Golden Mean), how far from each other, their placement around the trunk (look up Fibonacci Sequence…).

But today I’m talking about perspective.

The concept of perspective is what the Bonsai peeps call “taper”. Perspective is, in its simplest definition, the viewers position.

Taper, in Bonsai, is perspective. This is an exercise I use when teaching beginners (and not so beginners) what I mean (I also use it to explain another technique of perspective: that of tilting the tree slightly forward, towards the viewer). I say, “You trust me? Ok then, close your eyes, imagine you are walking in some primordial forest, full of the ideal, a priori trees. You walk up to one, right up to the gnarled root base, you reach your hand out to feel the rough, mossy trunk. You tilt your head up and try to see the top of the tree, the crown (what bonsai people call the apex). There you are, the roots spread out at your feet, clutching the earth, the branches and leaves like a framework supporting the firmament, and the trunk, like looking down a railroad track, “tapers” to a point, so high up it makes you dizzy”

Now, even the skinniest of trees, when viewed from this “perspective” have taper. Serious taper. This perception of taper is what programs our brain to view that taper on a bonsai and relate it with height. And bonsai, in case you didn’t know, is an art of illusion, of tricks and forced perspectives, that fool the brain into believing a little tree is bigger than it is. And that’s why we are always pushing the concept of taper. Let’s get back to our ficus.

It has a pretty wide base. Up top, it’s pretty thin. Not bad taper….

…but that taper could be a little better. You can probably guess, if you are long suffering reader of the blog, what I might be doing next to this tree.

You’re probably right. But it’s already doing it to itself. Defoliation Nation…man.

I accidentally let the tree dry out, and a tropical, like this here ficus, equates drying out with the winter time. In the winter, they drop leaves. And that’s what’s happening here. You’ll also have leaf drop when the light duration and intensity changes, like when you move a ficus indoors to protect it from the cold. I will recommend to my Northernly challenged students to go ahead and defoliate when you bring them in, and you’ll get a new set of leaves that are adjusted to whatever indoor light set up you have. Try it. It’s easier for a tropical tree to make new leaves (which is true of most broad leaf trees as well) than it is to adjust the chlorophyll to compensate for the low light.

Back to my tree and forgetting to water, if you do it, don’t be alarmed (well, not too much) if you miss a day or three (whoops!) of watering. Chances are the leaves will grow back. Hopefully. I’m not worried. Not much…….

Anyway, look at that trunk! Lots of aerial roots, most of which will go away from my scissors, this isn’t a banyan style tree, though it is a ficus, so I’ll beep a few, but only just enough.

If I see a tree with this many aerial roots, my guess is that it’s been in too much shade, not watered enough, rootbound, or a combination of all three.

We’ve already learned that I might be under watering a tad. And it’s entirely possible that the tree has been crowded on the bench, with all the lower trunk being shaded, but it’s not rootbound. But we will visit the roots later.

Let’s get the tools out and try to improve the taper.

Do you see how the thickness does not change from below the branches to above the branches?

That’s pretty common after the initial chop, which may have been done 5,10 or even 15 years ago, that the original owner thought he/she was done with the chopping. But the initial chop is just the beginning (🎶 The first cut is the deepest…..🎶).

So I’m thinking this is a good place to cut. There’s a new leader I can wire up….

…..and it’s not too harsh of a transition.

Chop!Hmmmmnnnn….that could make a good little tree.

…..there’s even on or two roots. Let’s get a pot…..

Tie it down into said pot, backfill with good nursery soil (bonsai soil dries out too fast in a deep nursery pot, so use a good draining potting soil instead)

Also, standard practice amongst professional propagators is to cut the leaves. This reduces transpiration and the cut leaves create ethylene gas and abscisic acid, which pushes root growth (yes, my friends, defoliating a tree with roots does the same thing. It’s an adaption to protect from an insect infestation like a plague of locusts that defoliate a tree, or if it dries out, or maybe a denuding wind storm, like maybe, gee, I don’t know…that bitch Hurricane Irma..it induces root growth to help the tree recover faster)

There’s the chop. I like to use a sharp knife to clean the cut and today (not every day though) I will seal the wound.

I’m going to try a new product for sealing the wound. You can get it in the door and window section of your favorite DYI warehouse.

I have high hopes for it. I like the way it’s formed, and that it’s less like clay and more like putty.

I’ve used the duct seal that’s all the rage with the kids, and it kinda melts in the Florida sun. I shall report back on the efficacy (you like that word, right?) of this product.

Here’s a trick. Notice the cut below ⬇️

I want a new branch in that area. The one that was there was too thick (just as the trunk needs taper, but the branches, as you go up the tree, should be thinner and thinner until you have twigs on the crown). By leaving a stump like this, I am leaving the “Branch Collar” intact (I could write a constitution on the branch collar, but I won’t). What does this branch collar have to do with growing a new branch? Well, it is within the collar where we have a concentration of undifferentiated meristematic cells that, when we cut at certain places, will magically turn into new buds and, therefore, new branches (it’s not magic, it’s hormones).

Under my thumb! Big and ugly wire. And a careful bending using some pliers (bend the wire, not the branch. It lessens the chance of snapping the branch). And the bones are reset. Now I’m going to slip pot the ficus into a slightly larger pot.

Which is an easy explanation, one slips it out of a smaller pot and slips it into a larger pot, without touching the roots. This technique is good for repotting out of season if the soil is compacted and the health of the tree is in jeopardy.

This new pot has about a half inch to an inch more space all around the root ball, and it’s deeper.

Tied down well.

And the dramatic finish.

Pablo approves.

I did remove all the leaves except at the top (reference this Post for the reason why) And I left all the growth tips intact. This, along with no root cutting, will cause elongation in the branches. I fertilized with a half organic and half synthetic fertilizer as well. Growth is good, growth creates new, efficient leaves, which produce sugar, which is then turned to carbohydrate, which means that, in the spring, it’ll have energy to accommodate it when I start pushing ramification. It’s now winter in Florida, but that doesn’t matter much, for, if you did this to your tropical trees, in a good indoor setup during the frozen winter, they’ll do the same thing. You need high light, soil temps above 65f, and adequate water and ferts. Try it. The leaves will be huge but don’t worry about that, you need to defoliate when they go back outside in the spring anyway. And that’s that.

Look for an update next year.

10 thoughts

  1. I love leghorn; thanks for the memories. You are one funny m….f….r. I don’t know you but judging by your blog, you seem to be doing/feeling better; the jokes are aplenty and as always very funny. ta love,


  2. I have a request. As a beginner I have difficulty (seriously not metaphorically) with visualizing a tree in it’s denuded state. I’m not sure what it is but I can’t follow the progress of the tree (e.g., re fig above) from start to finish using the pics with the blog. It is probably just me. I don’t even know if this makes any sense to you, it doesn’t makes sense to me. Here’s the request: would you also take a pic of, say, the tree in original pot denuded (leaves), then a pic after massive chop, pic of tree before it’s been wired, you have already included the last pic finished item. There are loads of reasons why you can’t do that and that is why I asked if you would; to me it’s a simple yes or no, so no hard feelings.

    Thanks again,



    1. That’s my usual way I do things, but this post was more about taper and the artistic underpinnings of it than about the trees styling. If you keep scrolling you’ll see many examples of where I do that, almost to a degree where people skim over those parts (there are almost 400 posts on the blog to keep you busy over the winter….)


  3. Interesting concept for us northerners…defoliate prior to bringing in. And the leaves will adjust to the indoor lighting we introduce them to. Good tip! Thanks Adam!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s