A Traditional Japanese Approach

Over the next few months, I will be producing a number of articles describing and illustrating traditional Japanese methods to create bonsai. I will also be exploring the cultivation techniques used to create some of the world’s best miniature trees.

Article 3.JPG

David, with his teachers Chiako Yamamoto, Katsuhiko Tomita & Chiako's friend. 

In Japan, they have grown bonsai for many hundreds of years. The techniques and styles have been developed over this time and even the Japanese can be influenced by the western ideals and interpretations of what a bonsai is and should be. In many cases, these changes are influenced by commercial interests. 


Most of the bonsai now seen in Japan are very much influenced by the western ideas of perfection and the idea that big is beautiful. In Japan, there is a core of bonsai specialists who see many of these trees as ugly or unnatural. I have been very fortunate to learn from Katsuhiko Tomita and Chiako Yamamoto, who were students of Yoshitoshi Shibata. The Shibata style of bonsai follows a more natural form. 


With the older style of bonsai, the emphasis is on the appreciation of nature, the natural form, the changing of the seasons and appreciating the beauty that nature creates. This style of bonsai is about the imperfections that makes the tree more unique and hence, desirable.

I would like to start with the very beginnings of bonsai, from starting to grow from seed or cuttings and I will then build on this, showing how a tree can be developed using these older techniques.

Acer palmatum, Japanese Mountain Maple, grown using more recent methods, where the tree is grown vigorously in order to achieve a very large trunk with an immense taper.


This type of tree will give a very 
impressive tree very quickly, however, it is very likely that it will die comparatively young.

Article 1.JPG

Acer buergerianum, Trident Maple.

This tree has been grown in the traditional slow method, where the tree has never been wired. It has  been developed over a long period of time. The tree has a very subtle but elegant appearance and taper, the branches are very fine with many short shoots, small internodes with small buds that produce small leaves.

Article 2.JPG

Being contained in a small pot over many years, the tree learns that it will have a limited amount of food and water, so it grows only a limited amount that can be sustained while staying healthy.


The tree essentially slows down its growth and will not be stressed by its environment. This will help ensure it will live much longer than trees that are forced to grow more quickly.


Both methods of producing trees have a place and they produce trees of excellent quality, neither method is the correct method, both are important to us and ideas and skills can be taken from both in order for us to create and achieve the best from our trees.


We must always remember to take time to sit back and appreciate our own achievements, but above all, appreciate the natural beauty we can harness in our trees. 

Raising bonsai from seed. 

Growing trees from seed is a science in its self, with many tree species requiring stratification in order to germinate. The process for a horticulturalist is often trial and error, while the results are dependent on how fresh the seed is. As a rule, the fresh seed will normally germinate the best. Seeds such as Japanese Maples are actually best collected when they are still green on the tree. In the UK this would be about early to mid-October, but this will vary depending on the conditions in any year. Some Acer species such as Acer griseum will produce masses of seeds every year, but most will be empty shells and will never grow.

Most tree species will need to be chilled for several months in order to induce germination, this can be achieved naturally by sowing the seeds fresh in the autumn and allowing the natural weather conditions to break down the germination inhibitors present in most species. We usually mix our seed with a small amount of moist compost
or sharp sand and place in the salad compartment of the fridge. Germination in most cases will begin while the seed is still in the fridge, so we usually check regularly for signs.

Once germination has occurred, we then remove it from the fridge and spread the seed and compost mix on the top of seed trays, then place in a sheltered location. The seedlings will be left in this seed tray for several months up to a year or two before separating and potting on.

This is where I will challenge the modern concept of removing the taproot. When a seedling grows, the root is affected by the soil or compost in which it grows, creating movement and shape. It is at this point when we can start to take advantage of this natural movement. This in recent years would be cut off, firstly removing the
natural movement and then, secondly, wasting the time and energy the tree has put into producing this interesting root. This is the bit we want to use and will become the trunk of your bonsai tree.

We remove the seedling carefully from the compost being careful not to damage any of the fine roots. We can then inspect the root system to see what shape and movement we have.  We then carefully prune away some of the very fine roots nearest the top exposing the main root that was below the compost. Looking at the growth above ground we can consider planting the tree on a different angle to which it was previously growing so that during the next season, the tree will send shoots in the direction of the sunlight and over the season we can continue to move the tree so that it grows towards the light to create more shape and movement in the trunk.


Wiring of the trunk to create this shape and movement will create a movement that is visibly man-made. A more natural movement will be created by using natural sunlight to direct growth.