The Bonsai Master - An Allegory of Management
Copyright © 1993 - by Horace A. Vallas, Jr.

It takes years of patience and attention to develop a fine bonsai. It takes at least as long to become a master practitioner. There is no such thing as an "instant bonsai" - nor a "one-minute master."

A skilled and practiced eye is required to recognize promising bonsai material - backing-off or squinting in order to obtain proper perspective. One must learn to identify the fundamental structure and form of a potential bonsai, selectively ignoring tangle or sparseness. Order can be brought to tangle - and sparseness can be used to advantage - but the tree itself will dictate its optimum style.

The master uses rules of style as guidelines only. He knows that rigid adherence often leads to disappointing results. A master directs his efforts toward enhancing - not fighting - a tree’s natural tendancies.

Training is a process of refinement. First consideration is given to the trunk. It may take several years to obtain an appropriate taper. Next, the main branches are refined to provide the general shape of the canopy. This too may require several growing seasons to accomplish. Finally, the branchlets are tended and the bonsai is fully revealed.

The master gives as much - or even more - attention to the back of a tree as he does to its front. He knows that it is the back which provides the depth required for a dramatic frontal view.

Throughout training, the roots of the tree are cared for. Root mass is reduced slowly, over time. Large roots in particular must be removed gradually, in stages, to allow new feeder roots to form and take over supply needs.

During training, wire and other appliances are used sparingly and as unobtrusively as possible, allowing for pleasant viewing even while the tree is being trained. Appliances are left in place only long enough to accomplish their purpose and are removed before scaring or other damage occurs.

Shaping takes place in stages with consideration given to the maturity of the tree. A young tree or branch has the suppleness of youth. More patience is required to bend a mature branch. If one is too aggressive, an important branch can be damaged or lost causing general loss of balance or form.

The nature of the tree will dictate its needs in terms of environment and nutrition. The master knows that the pine likes good drainage provided by sand but the bald-cypress will flourish in bog. He knows that a quince can stand freezing temperatures that would kill a black-olive. A feeding schedule is designed for each tree individually. The master knows the reward for such individual attention.

The master is skilled in the use of controled stress as part of training. He knows when to withhold water. He knows when root-pruning will lead to leaf-size reduction. He knows when to withhold feeding to enhance flowering. The master knows how much stress his tree can stand, and when and how to remove stress when its work is done.

In selecting the component pieces of a forest planting, the master again uses nature as a guide. The role, scale, placement and species of each tree is carefully planned and executed. The result is a harmonious and accurate reflection of a natural forest with its dark places, sunny meadows, shaded glens and root-broken paths.

The master is careful in selection of the pot that will serve as home for his bonsai. The pot must enhance the beauty of the tree’s form and coordinate with its size. It should provide correct contrast to the tree’s color, blending subtly with the tree to form a pleasing whole.

Pruning is performed throughout a bonsai’s lifetime, but only as necessary to maintain proper form. Balance is maintained between root and canopy, and trunk and branch. Pruning is performed in a manner that strengthens the tree. The master knows that pruning too much or too often can weaken or even kill a tree.

At times it is beneficial to allow periods of wild, unrestrained growth. Wild branches are often left in place for several seasons to strengthen and thicken the trunk. Later, these can be removed and rooted to form new trees. Many fine bonsai began life as cuttings.

Training of a bonsai is never really finished for it is a living and ever changing thing. Over the years, with practiced observation and close attention, the master learns the nature and the cycles of his trees. He knows their seasons. He knows their spring and fall colors. He knows their summer canopies and their winter forms. He knows when branch and bud swell will occur. He knows how much mid-summer heat and sun can be tolerated. He knows when each is flurishing and when one is suffering.

A master is tireless in his attention. He can be found daily, out among his trees, both reveling in - and wondering at - their ability to reflect the majesty, strength, and mystery of creation. The master is ever grateful for his chance to participate.

Should a fine old bonsai reach the end of its life, the master will show his concern to the end. No trash heap awaits a favored companion.

And finally, when the master reaches the end of his season, he will pass his charges on to another...perhaps student...perhaps teacher...with knowledge that his care will continue through other hands.

hav - May '93

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