Refinement or Makeover

by Rudi Adam


Refinement of your bonsai should be an ongoing process throughout the seasons.

This is done by pruning and nipping of the new buds and shoots or occasionally wiring them to increase the ramification and length of new growing twigs. Pruning also helps to form foliage clouds, which will give the proper overall outline of the tree.

Observe the growing pattern of the individual tree. Strengthen weak sections with foliar feeding of these parts and reduce overly strong sections by nipping them early or by leaf reduction. Leaf reduction can be either by removing every second leaf entirely or by cutting every leaf in half.

For drastic measures a combination of these techniques may be a solution.

Since the leaves are the main food factories of the plant, a reduction either by number or in surface area will limit the amount of food produced and therefore weaken the new buds and twigs, which are the main consumers of the manufactured food.

For foliar feeding avoid chemical (manufactured synthetic) fertilisers, rather use natural soluble products such as "Nitrosol" and even then use in a very diluted form.

The sun and wind will increase the evapooration rate of the water content in the solution and leaf bum may occur.

If you are not successful with these methods the chances are that the tree wants to do something else and you must take cognisance of its growth habit otherwise you will fight a losing battle.

In the case where one side of the tree seems weaker, rotating the weaker side towards the sunlight may be the answer. Overly long sprouts and larger than average leaves may be an indication that the tree is standing in too much shade (like indoors); is over fertilised or receives too much water (especially from an overhead sprinkling system).

Repotting done timely will strengthen and diversify the root system in order to create the equilibrium, which is so necessary for balanced top-growth.

Show and feel "Dignity" and "Respect" for the bonsai tree. It should ensure that you create or guide your tree into a work of art by following the slogan "beauty without unnecessary cruelty", but if your respect for the tree is absent, the dignity of the tree will be lost and the result may well be "cruelty without beauty".

The latter seems to me to be the trend, to give the bonsai "Gladiators" a chance to show off to the public for their amusement and amazement. To me, this was never the aim or the purpose of bonsai. Carving young vibrant trees and using blow torches on still living wood seem cruel to me. (Read "The Secret Life Of Plants", by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird)

This takes us back to the old alchemists where wounds were sterilised with a red-hot poker, or to China, where the feet of young girls where broken and bound deliberately in order to conform to the feet of the Empress. This statement however, does not condemn these training and improvement techniques for the purpose of teaching or where the effect may well enhance the beauty of the tree, but should always be carefully considered.


The "Makeover" of a tree may happen 5-6 years after the initial design was started and then again maybe every 10 years after that.

The purpose is to look at your bonsai with new eyes and no malice or bias as if you see it for the very first time. Find all the faults and attributes that it possesses and see what corrective action you can take or what you and the tree can live with, but beware not to make changes just for changes sake.

After 5-6 years, root pruning should have been done twice and the tree would normally have settled down to its new lifestyle ethos is also the time when one can observe the willingness of the tree to conform to what you want it to do or not. It is also a good time to re-assess its progress or lack thereof.

Each aspect from the roots, the trunk, the branches and their placement as well as spaces in between should be carefully assessed. Assessing the front of the tree, placement in the pot, the ramification of twigs as well the outline of the tree should also be done. Dead wood in any form must be closely scrutinised and lastly confirming the correct container size and colour as well as ground cover. The aim is - perfection in health, shape, size, style and colour - these must be achieved with dignity and respect for the subject.

Having said this there must also be time for the tree to do its own thing; being "cornered" and under someone else's control forever will cause even a mouse to attack you. So, "Time Out" periods like autumn is built in to the timetable for my trees. Winter pruning will always take care of overly strong sprouts. This makeover process should be repeated every 8-10 years. As trees mature and age, their personal needs and habits change and their treatment should be matched to their needs.

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Grey marsh, black cloud...

Flapping away in autumn rain

Last old slow heron. ~ Anon

Random Bonsai Tip

Mixing growing medium - To mix your growing medium, put the mixture into an empty compost bag (as much as you can handle) and tip the bag backwards and forwards - this is much easier and more effective than mixing in a wheelbarrow!