Love the Process, Because It's All Process

Bonsai is a journey, not a destination . . .

Colin Fraser Purcell


These are some thoughts for the new bonsai hobbyists, those of you that want to get your hands dirty. Maybe you've spent hours watching videos, reading books, or have even joined your local bonsai club. Awesome. Whats next?

I often say to my beginner students, "bonsai isn't just a thing you own, it's a thing you do." This isn't a new idea; I'm sure I've heard other teachers say "bonsai is a verb as well as a noun." I usually mention it as part of a broader conversation about enjoying bonsai as a hobby. If you fall in love with just the results, with the "finished" image of a refined tree, then I think you will be perpetually disappointed as a hobbyist. If instead, you fall in love with the process of bonsai, then you will have lifelong enjoyment, no matter the state and stage of your collection. Bonsai is a process of perpetual improvement; if you can learn to enjoy that, then you will truly thrive as a bonsai hobbyist.

When you love the process of bonsai, choosing where to make a trunk chop on a piece of new raw material can be just as fulfilling as styling a tree thats older than you are, and you will begin to see the beauty at every stage of development. If you love the process of bonsai, planting seeds when you're in your 80s won't seem crazy. When you love the process of bonsai, you stop worrying about who has nicer trees or can afford better pots than you; you just keep doing the work. And, if you trust the process of bonsai, you will eventually end up with better trees. I think it matters most that your trees are better than they were two years ago, not that they're better than someone else's.

Tree people are fond of quoting the Chinese proverb, "the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now." I like that, and I tend to add this coda: "The next five years are going to go by whether you plant trees or not. You might as well plant trees." This attitude has the added benefit of making bonsai more approachable and accessible to people of all ages, skill levels, and incomes. Every tree, as long as it's still green, can be improved. So buy a nice tree . . . or buy random nursery stock . . . or plant free seeds you pulled from a street tree. I suggest you do all three if you can. Just work on trees -- the more the better. You'll kill some; that's ok, as long as you're learning. The things that can't die, or be stolen, or blow over in a storm, are the skills you'll learn and the enjoyment you'll get out of doing bonsai.