Note: This is a lightly edited re-publication of an article I wrote for the BSSF website in 2016. It has proven many times to be a good reference for my students.
In bonsai, there is some ideal mix of sizes, shapes and species of trees that will provide for an ideal learning path. Your collection may contain plants because you found them at an auction, on the side of the road, at a nearby nursery, or elsewhere. But, that doesn’t mean that these plants are what should be in your collection. Whenever you consider acquiring a piece of material, think about the quality of the plant and/or the purpose it might serve.
To learn bonsai you’ll need to acquire enough plants to work with during multiple workshops per year. You’ll need to have material that is good for working during different months and seasons when workshops are offered. You’ll need to have material that teaches you different techniques; you can’t learn about deciduous care by working on junipers. These are the purposes that material in your collection can serve.
To give back to the community and to inspire others you’ll want to have a few trees that really shine. To make regular contributions to a show, or show-and-tell table, you will need a mix of conifers, deciduous, broadleaf evergreen and flowering/fruiting trees. Bring trees to group events that are seasonally shining for others to enjoy – in winter this may be a deciduous tree with good twig structure, in spring a flowering tree in bloom.
Show trees can take a long time to wire and style. But, the maintenance will be teach you a lot. Take your show trees to our Masters series workshops.
To have a high-quality collection you’ll have to work hard and buy carefully. But you’ll also have to re-evaluate material and in some cases realize that not all material can become a great bonsai in your lifetime. Mediocre material can serve learning purposes, but should be passed on once you’ve mastered techniques so that your collection can improve past the limitations of a beginner’s eye.
To all these ends, for all these purposes, if it were up to me, your bonsai collection would look something like this:
If it were up to me you would have 10 show trees, and about 40 project trees.
If it were up to me, 10 of your 40 project trees would be collected trees.
If it were up to me, 10 of your 40 project trees would be shohin in the making.
If it were up to me 10 of your 40 project trees would be larger than 28″ tall and with a trunk about 3-4″ across.
If it were up to me two of your show trees would be an unusual style (not informal upright basically.)
If it were up to me, two of your show trees would be 30′-36″ tall and 18-36″ wide.
If it were up to me, half your show trees would be deciduous, broadleaf evergreen, and/or flowering.
Think about the proportions that I’ve listed. If you have ten trees, two might be high quality show trees while the other 8 are projects. Space limitations can prevent many people from having large collections or large trees. But if you have ten trees, see if you can squeeze in one that’s large with them…not just 18″ either, I’m talking “That doesn’t fit in my car” big.
So, since it’s not up to me, what should your collection actually look like? Well, that’s up to you; but think about how the trees you own allow you to participate in learning opportunities and how they allow you to give back to your community.
Not sure where to get trees? Send me an email and I’ll see what I can do to help. I happen to have a sales page!