The Student – Instructor Paradigm   Leave a comment


In science and philosophy, a paradigm (/ˈpærədm/) is a distinct set of concepts or thought patterns, including theories, research methods, postulates, and standards for what constitutes legitimate contributions to a field.

This area, given enough time always seems to come up in hobbiest circles. Instructors take the time to try to help and pass along the benefits of their timely experience, but soon tire and become frustrated with the inability of what seems like much too long to learn what seems so easy. Easy for the person that’s done it for ten years, not so easy for someone just buying their first plant. What kind of advice can I give to someone that has never done bonsai before?

  • Look, before you buy. Is it healthy? Does it have an adequate trunk? Does it fit my mental model of what I perceive a bonsai to be? Does the trunk have movement?

  • Do I want something for now, or do I want something to plant in the ground to grow bigger?

  • Do I want a deciduous tree or a conifer?

  • Do I have a particular style in mind I am shopping for?

  • Do I have a particular species in mind I am shopping for?

Let me talk about these five points in more detail. First, looking. That is the hardest part to teach someone how to do. You look at things all your life when you shop, you look for things on sale, you choose the best firmest peaches, and you look for things in your size. You do the same exact thing in bonsai when you shop for material. You look for healthy stock, you look for movement in the trunk, and you look for basel flare in the rootage area. Your mental model, it will start when you see the first bonsai for the first time. You may be at a show with a friend, or someone has set up a display at a shopping center, or you visit someone who has bonsai and you walk in the backyard for the first time to take a closer look. Something out of all the exposure will set in your mind. Something like a shape, a feeling, leaves, needles, a trunk shape, something begins your mental model. It starts at a young age. You may see a really cool car at a young age like a Lotus or Ferrari and you will base every exotic car against those cars all your life. You may look at a new Corvette and tell yourself subconsciously that, their getting better, but they are still not a Lotus. That’s how your mental model guides your life for your whole life. Can your mental model change? Of course. Things you used to like soon become outdated when something new and better comes along. My mental model of great bonsai is much different than it was 36 years ago. That is due to the influence of the internet being able to show me bonsai with the click of a keystroke and see the best trees in the world. 36 years ago I was stuck in a book/magazine world and that was the limits of my exposure.

Do I wish a small tree or a large tree? seems like a dumb question, but many people don’t know what they want. Let’s talk about the 6/1 ratio as it applies to bonsai. As a general rule, bonsai look best when their ratio is 6 inches of height to every inch of trunk width. So if you buy a piece of material 1 inch across and it is two feet tall, to really fit within the ideals of bonsai, it would need to be chopped down to about 6 inches in height. It is conceivable to turn the two foot tall 1 inch thick trunk stock into a literati type tree. That is not as easy as it sounds either, and I could do a whole article just on literati type trees. If you purchase a 1 inch trunk and you wish a larger tree then it can be planted in a large box or the ground and grown out. Keep in mind that portability is compromised and it may not be easy to transport a charge this heavy in a car. This may not be the easiest thing to bring to a workshop, and frankly not much can be done to it anyway since all it is doing is growing and waiting for wire applied to harden off.

Bonsai trees in general are divided into evergreen and broadleaf. Conifer and deciduous. Conifers are your junipers and pines, yews, hemlock and cedars. Deciduous tree are maples, hornbeam, hackberry, and gingko. These species overlap a lot on style but not so much on care. Each has it capabilities and idiosyncrasies. If you prefer and have a mental model of trees from the sierra’s then you will gravitate to conifers. If you prefer the look of a massive spreading oak in the country side, then deciduous trees will be your ticket. Of course having both is even better.

A person should be on the lookout for raw stock thats fits their image of bonsai, that mental model. It is prudent to purchase material that is already on it’s way to fitting your ideal. It is also much easier to work within your means talent wise. If something really appeals to you be it cascade, or informal, formal or slanting, then of course buying material shaped that way in the can is only going to make your job so much easier. My job too if your asking me for direction!! If you have this great image of a cascading tree spilling from the pot with maybe flowers and later berries, then we wouldn’t purchase an elm tree to start with trying to materialize that image. We might look at pyracanthas, or cotoneaster or rosemary and maybe even azalea.

I just touched on species, but if you were savvy, you keyed in on the species above that I named. I mentioned species that thrive in our climate. Our climate in Fresno California, for those of you reading from somewhere else just plug in the species that thrive in your location, is harsh and hot, and cold to extreme. I would love to have a larch, but I know they don’t live here, so I don’t have one. At the recent Shohin Seminar, the only instructor that come from out of town is Bill Valavanis. Each instructor brings his own material for the session. Bill brought  Hinoki Cypress Sekka. This plant may do OK for those that took the workshop around the coast and SF area, but for the guys here in the valley that took the workshop, will have a brown tree around July. Know your area and know your plants that thrive. Ask questions of seasoned members and what works best around here. Shop for that and help out the instructor so he doesn’t have to tell you that won’t do.

So now your armed with the simple basics and wish to move on. Where should I be looking for this kind of material? Well unless your mental model of a bonsai is a small pine tree styled juniper from Home Depot, you will need to be looking at more bonsai related sources. Specialty bonsai nurseries are a great place. We are blessed in California to have many growers to choose from. Here in Fresno Steve DaSilva is growing material specifically for bonsai and has material from small to large. Evergreen to broadleaf. Muranaka Bonsai Nursery in Nipomo is a long time, established bonsai nursery with an abundance of material. Ed Clark, in Lindsey has five or six hoop houses plus material under shade cloth, nearly five acres of material. Ron Anderson in Sacramento is also good for material and lots of pots. These type of nurseries cater to the bonsai aficionado and will have material that is trimmed on top and bottom to keep it containable in the pots we use. The trees are tended periodically for shoot length so the branching doesn’t get all wonky. Each year in Dec. the Fresno club has a Bonsai Yard Sale with plants selling for great prices. In March we have the show at the Home and Garden Show at the Fresno Fairgrounds and great deals can be had there on all kinds of bonsai material. The bi annual Shohin Seminar in Santa Nella that just happened a week ago, has great material and pots and supplies that can’t be had anywhere except at these kinds of functions.

This is the most important piece of advice I give to anyone wishing to start their journey in bonsai. “Don’t buy any material that you don’t see the tree in”. What does that mean? It means that the person purchasing the material should already have a plan in mind, a blue print formulated on what is going to happen with the material when you get it home. It should meet all the criteria I just outlined. It should have a decent size in the trunk, it should have movement, it should have some taper, it should be healthy, and the roots should radially spread around the trunk with good basel flare. There that wasn’t so bad, just go to any bonsai nursery and pick up half a dozen of those. Not so fast. You may find material with SOME of those attributes, but finding material with all hardly ever exists. It is your job to look at it , look at all sides, analyse it, see what needs correcting and if it’s in your wheel house and bag of tricks. If it needs branches in new positions are you armed with knowledge of grafting? Do you know someone that does? Can you get that person to help you? Have you ever chopped a tree? Do you know which part of the season is best for that? Do you know how to wire a tree well? I say well because wire is either right or it is wrong, there is no inbetween. Sure you can be sloppy, but it looks sloppy. How you approach your bonsai and how you work it is a reflection of you. I would imagine you are reading this because one, you have a curiosity about getting better and two, you wish to do bonsai on a more community level. Otherwise you would just work in your backyard in obscurity, and believe you me, there are plenty that do.

I don’t have much money for this art? I heard it costs a lot? It does. But everything does, heck a fast food burger is ten bucks now. I can actually get into bonsai for less than a fast food lunch for two. The trick is, buy smart. Don’t go out and buy a bunch of crap. I see so many people go out and buy crappy plants and bring them to a club meeting and expect the instructor person that gets hijacked on his way to the bathroom to come over and tell the person what to do with the plant they bought. The club instructor is there for ideas and to help one to see things in the material that only experience can see. These ideas are up for discussion and pros and cons are weighed, and in the end it is the decision of the tree owner to decide what to do. The instructor is not there to do the work for you. The club setting is laid back and helpful, not one person doing all the work. There are many bonsai professionals that would be willing to do the work for you for a nominal fee. In fact I might even be willing to make your tree for a fee. I will gladly give one advice on planting angle, or explaining rotating a potted plant for different planting configurations, or how to mix some soil or any myriad of things concerning bonsai. What I won’t do, can’t do, is pick out a tree for you. I can’t tell you what you should buy any more than I can pick out your clothes in a department store. Bonsai is personal and has to trip your trigger not mine. What you have to do is pick out a tree with your leaning curve as the basis. Pick out something that you see a tree in. What if there was no bonsai club? What if there was no magazines or books? Would you still do bonsai? Would you still try? Do you come to the club expecting someone to do the work, or are you interested in developing the skills to do it your self, and are you willing to put in the time and money to do it?

 I was part of a very good club that fell apart because the sensei decided that it was too far away to come and work with far too many people that were not willing to work their trees. He was tired of coming over monthly to repot trees for people, to apply wire for people and to style trees for people. Even in a scenario in which he got paid he felt that his time was worth much more than that  to come and do everyone’s work. It happens and personally I don’t want that to happen again. It hurt his pride that people would not do the work themselves. He was not treated with respect.

One last thing, to do bonsai on a decent level requires some commitment. It also requires lots of time and in most cases lots of money. Like any hobby you only get out of it what you put into it. If you go to a bonsai meeting once a month, and go golfing the other three weekends and have the best golf clubs, the best shoes, buy a couple rounds of beer at the nineteenth hole and then take all your buds out to lunch, and come to that one meeting with your 20.00 juniper from Home Depot and expect some instructor type guy to make a master piece out of it, someone needs to re evaluate their expectations in hobby priorities. I’m not saying it can’t be done, it’s just a lot to expect from someone that sits right beside you when the club business is being read.

Now I know this has been a lot to read, and I hope everyone reads it with the spirit in which it was written. I want everyone to have a great bonsai experience but one needs to come to the meeting ready to learn, equipped with the best they can afford and know what they want to do and we can help get you there. That is it.  If I am asked to come and look at your tree and I get there and you start out with “What can we make with this ” we got a problem.

These are just some arbitrary photo’s of stuff I do and stuff I bought and what they might become. Most of it is FREE and what I did buy cost very little. I will post the price I paid, less the pot.

Free Trees by root cuttings

Root cuttings this year for more free trees. 

Free trees from seed.

Trees purchased for very little money

FBS Yard sale $35.00

Gazebo Gardens $45.00

Muranaka $100.00

Ed Clark $20.00

Fbs Yard sale $35.00

Ed Clark 45.00

Gazebo Gardens 30.00

Bonsai-a-thon $110.00

FBS Yard sale $60.00

Posted February 10, 2020 by California Bonsai Art in Uncategorized

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