9 min read

With the advent of the new year, many of us took time out to consider what our goals and aspirations for the year ahead might be. My little family spent a morning creating dream boards, which was an especially fun exercise to do with a 4 year old! 

Having goals for your bonsai hobby or passion is great as it compels you to strive towards improvement. These improvements ultimately lead to a heightened sense of accomplishment and perhaps more importantly, an increased enjoyment of this pursuit.

Here are 8 goals of mine for this year although I have tried to generalize the blog post so the goals may be more applicable to a broader audience and may serve as inspiration for you to draw from when setting your own, more personalized goals.  

Goal #1. Quality not quantity

For most bonsai artists there is a very real likelihood they will accumulate too many trees. “Too many” is a subjective phrase of course and to each of us the actual number will depend on several factors such:

  1. available space,
  2. amount of free time available,
  3. and other factors such as availability of water and more.
There are benefits to growing or experimenting with many trees of various species when you first begin to develop bonsai as this hands on experience is invaluable. When your trees have passed beyond development and are into the refinement stage you will find that your available resources especially time, might be strained. If you find yourself at this point then thinning your collection will enable you to focus on the trees you decide to keep and will increase the overall quality of your collection.

quality not quantity

Image caption. Constantly focus on improving the overall quality of your collection and stop diluting your efforts with too many long term "projects."

Some people are not fond of the idea of selling trees. Personally, I sell trees for example when I have reached a goal or stage I had in mind for the tree. Selling it then allows someone else to take the tree further, free up some space for me and I invest the income straight back into my collection through buying quality stock.

I decided a long time ago that I want to be a bonsai artist, not a bonsai collector. Which one are you?

Goal #2. Add at least one quality tree to your collection

Some people feel that buying a bonsai tree is somehow cheating. They opt rather to grow exclusively from seed and cuttings. I realize then that buying something at an advanced stage of development will likely not be a goal of yours, however I do wish you would realize the benefits both to yourself and to the greater bonsai community.

Add one good tree

Image caption. Buying good quality stock or even trees at an advanced stage of development can really inspire you and increase your enjoyment of bonsai as you develop them even further. Too many long term projects can make you despondent.

Buying good material; whether it be a field grown or collected trunk, a partially developed tree from a bonsai nursery or private grower, or even a refined tree can:

  1. do so much for your enthusiasm,
  2. jump start the development of your skills
  3. save you many years of development.

For the greater bonsai community I believe if more people begin buying better quality trees the knock on effects are numerous and will:

  1. automatically elevate the overall standard of trees one will see at exhibitions potentially attracting greater numbers to clubs.
  2. ensure the sustainability of commercial growers who provide good material and who will seek to "up their game" even further.
  3. motivate vendors such as myself to offer quality tools, containers, specialist growing mediums and other items needed by serious bonsai artists which in turn will enable them to achieve even higher standards of quality in their collections.
Interested in purchasing a quality bonsai tree? Take a look at these options.

Goal #3. Try a new technique

Unless you are a horticulturist, and even if you are for that matter, many of the techniques we use to develop our bonsai will not be common knowledge. If you just started bonsai then perhaps your immediate challenge might be knowing how to prune your Chinese maple or your Juniper. If you’ve been growing bonsai for longer you may never have tried and been successful at an air layering.

Trying a new bonsai technique

Image caption. Learn at least one new technique this year. Continuously challenging yourself by adding to your arsenal of techniques will enable you to achieve any creative styling you want to exercise on a tree.

Continuously trying and perfecting bonsai technique will greatly increase your ability to style or create trees however you imagine them. Albert Einstein once wrote "The only source of knowledge is experience," this is my current laptop wallpaper as I completely agree.

Find detailed descriptions and helpful images in my many blog posts to be found here.

Goal #4. Study trees and bonsai trees

Through constant study of trees growing in nature I firmly believe that this imagery becomes ingrained in ones mind and when called upon, for instance when you are styling a tree, can contribute greatly and in a positive way to the result.

Wild growing trees as inspiration

Image caption. You cannot get better reference material for a clump style than this tree on the grounds of Spier Estate outside Stellenbosch. 

I would also encourage you to study images of bonsai trees too. Although the images will be of trees which are essentially the artists interpretation of nature using material they had available, one can learn much from their work. This is especially the case with progression series (A series of photographs of the same tree before, during and after styling). Progressions offer valuable insights into how the artist solved various problems and what techniques they employed at each stage. Doing a simple google image search for a particular species or style will return many results. I personally prefer to collect exhibition albums though as they portray high quality trees and as I can page through them while sitting on the couch or laying in bed.

You will find a number of progressions on my blog too.

Goal #5. Grow your bonsai library

There are many bonsai related books available today. Many of them contain the same basic information but there are also books dealing with specific subjects or species such as this book on Satsuki azalea. Probably the best selection of international bonsai books can be found on the Stone Lantern website although shipping unfortunately can be a little costly and dare I say unreliable when using SAPO.

growing your bonsai library

Image caption. Add a title or more to your collection of bonsai books. 

However, we in South Africa are privileged to have several high quality books written by local bonsai artists readily available to us. I’d like to encourage you to have a copy of each of these books in your own personal library for reference. Not only will you have local, relevant information immediately available when you need it, you will also be supporting the authors through sales of their books.

Yes, if you belong to a club its library might have a copy of the books I refer to which you can lend for free. One book between 30 or more supposedly passionate South African bonsai artists is hardly supportive of local talent you will agree, added to that the inconvenience of not having ready access to the books when you need them. 

Goal #6. Increase your bonsai knowledge, online

Recently in conversation with Gail Theron of Bishopsford Bonsai, Gail commented that the younger generation is so fortunate to have a wealth of resources so readily available to them today. When she and other pioneers of South African bonsai started they had precious little to go on. She is spot on with that statement as we have countless blogs, YouTube, Google and much more.

online source of knowledge

Image caption. Bjorn of Eisei-en is a well known, highly experienced bonsai professional and the author of many fantastic videos and other content on bonsai.

To save you a little time I would like to recommend the following resources, in alphabetical order order which I personally like to follow, drawing inspiration and learning from them:

  1. Bonsai Empire: Oscar Jonker runs a very well maintained website where you will find loads of useful information however it is really his online courses and videos which I think are most useful. These paid courses are run by instructors including Michael Hagedorn (Crataegus Bonsai), Bjorn Bjorholm (Eisei-en) and most recently Morten Albek (Kisetsu-en)
  2. Bonsai Tonight blog: Maintained by Jonas Dupuich. I am not certain of his qualifications, but I know he is a professional who has trained with many leading bonsai practitioners around the world, has many years of experience and frequently writes very high quality articles with plenty of useful detail.
  3. Crataegus Bonsai blog: Maintained by Michael Hagedorn, a bonsai professional trained in Japan. Well written articles with a good sense of humour too.
  4. Eisei-en: Bjorn Bjorholm is a Japanese trained bonsai professional who now resides in the USA. You will still find many free high quality video's of his taken while he was apprenticing in Japan and more recently on YouTube, however you can also take his paid online courses too.
  5. Kisetsu-en: Morten Albek is a European artist who is passionate about shohin bonsai. If you are into smaller bonsai trees then this is a website you should definitely take a look at.
  6. Mirai live: If you haven’t heard of Ryan Neil by now then you really need to check out some of his free videos on Youtube. If you are serious about bonsai and want to develop your knowledge base very quickly then you should subscribe though. There are various packages at different prices but its well worth the money.

There are many more online resources however just a word of caution; take a look at the persons credentials before taking their content too seriously. By credentials I mean the quality of the trees they have created.

Goal #7. Join a local club or increase participation if already a member

I have heard from older members that in the early years of our clubs history there were literally hundreds of paid up members. This number dwindled substantially over the years but seems now to be on the increase again. Generally speaking though, it would seem that with the wealth of online information available, bonsai enthusiasts do not feel the need to be a member of a local club. They are however mistaken.

join a club

Image caption. One of the many benefits to joining a club is learning from practical demonstrations such as this one of a root over rock planting. Dorothy Franz and Jan Jurie Loots seen above are both members of Cape Bonsai Kai.

The feedback you can get from other growers who are exposed to similar or the same climatic conditions you are, working with the same species and have access to the same materials you do is valuable. Taking a tree to a meeting for feedback may also help you tremendously when you need a fresh set of eyes, although it might also be confusing as you are likely to get several opinions and not only one. Sometimes the source of such insights may take you by surprise, a newbie not burdened down by convention might just look your tree and be able to provide you with a completely novel story to tell with it.

Some people join and then leave a club as they feel the club is not creative enough, perhaps clinging to old ideas or have some other misgivings with the members. I think most clubs have suffered from stagnation at some point in time, but all it took was a few creative and confident individuals to change that. If you feel like that, then be the change you want to see in your club, to paraphrase the words of Ghandi.

Keen to find a club near you? Visit the South African Bonsai page here.

Goal #8. Attend as many bonsai related events as possible

One of the benefits to being a club member and regularly attending the meetings is that you get monthly injections of enthusiasm which might be all you need to keep you inspired when you're going through a slump. However if you want to take this to the next level you need to attend workshops, bonsai days or events, and of course conventions.

Matsuo Matsuda bonsai demonstrator

Image caption. Attending a bonsai event, especially a national or international convention can have a massive, positive impact on your development. Matsuo Matsuda can be seen above demonstrating on an old goyomatsu (Japanese white pine) in Saitama, Japan at the 2017 international convention.

2019 is going to be an exciting year in the South African bonsai calendar. Aside from the local events which your club and perhaps regional associations might host, you should definitely not miss ABC5. This event will take place in Pretoria from the 24th - 27th October. Headliners include Mauro Stemberger from Italy, Raphael Torres from Spain and Robert Mahler from the USA. You will find more information on the African Bonsai Association website.

Want to share any of your bonsai related goals with other readers? Making it public makes you more accountable and so more likely to put in the effort to achieve the goal. Share them with us below.

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