One man's philosophy is another man's bellylaugh.

Jeff L. Howe

Jeff L. Howe
Strasburg, Pennsylvania,
April 19
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Jeff Howe is a bonsai enthusiast and harmonica player who has very good reason to believe that the Universe tastes like a cheap buck-fifty melon. He is a product of Walled Lake and a former Poetry Slam Champion of Milwaukee. He once shook hands with Rocky Colavito, opened for Leon Redbone and took a piss next to Mose Allison (no hands were shaken). All things considered, his best single day was July 4th, 1987 when he marched in the Marmarth, North Dakota parade in the morning, discovered a rare dinosaur skull in the afternoon, and then sat in playing harmonica with a drunken cowboy band until way past tomorrow. It's been downhill ever since. Jeff is a misemployed geologist who specializes in interpreting rock outcrops at 70 miles per hour. It's a gift. His daughter loves cows. ................................................................................................................... FOR MORE STORIES, PHOTOS AND HARMONICA RECORDINGS VISIT:


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JANUARY 14, 2010 11:36AM

The Bonsai Paradox: How Do You Keep A Big Tree Small?

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Bonsai: The artistic cultivation of miniature trees in containers.


The most frequent question that people unfamiliar with bonsai ask (after “how do you keep them alive?”) is: “how do you keep them so small?”  The general public seems convinced that our wee trees are Lilliputian freaks that have been coerced into submission through starvation and bondage.  They suspect that we bind them like the feet of Chinese maidens or stretch them like the lips and ear lobes of some African tribes.  Obviously we waterboard them until they surrender!  Maybe yes, maybe no, but before we address the question of how to keep a bonsai small, it is helpful to first ponder the question of what bonsai is. 

Bonsai is the artistic cultivation of miniature trees in containers.  They are grown and styled to defy time, gravity and perspective.  Bonsai is really no more than an illusion that inhabits the intersection of science, art and horticulture.  It is an illusion in the sense that the bonsai artist attempts to convince the viewer that the trees are something that they are not.  It has been said that bonsai is a paradox: trees are manipulated to make young look old, to make tall look short, to make large look small, to make healthy look tortured and to make otherwise sensible trees appear to defy gravity.

You have seen proportion diagrams of the human body.  If pictures of a new baby, a growing child and an adult are all proportioned so that they are the same height, and set next to one another, the head of the baby is much larger in comparison with that of the child or adult.  The head of a baby may constitute up to 1/3 to 1/4 of the total length.  In an adult, this fraction falls to 1/5 to 1/6.   It is this relationship that makes each stage in development so immediately recognizable. 

The same is true with trees.  Young trees grow long and thin as they stretch to reach above the canopy to the sun.  There are fewer branches, and the distance between branches is greater (relatively of course).  The ratio between the width of trunk and width of branch is small.  Old trees, on the other hand, have remarkable taper.  They have thick, expressive trunks that progressively thin through smaller and smaller branches until they explode outwards in a spray of fine branchlets with leaves.  Old trees have thick, well-developed roots that often protrude above the ground, and the trees themselves are often gnarled and seemingly tortured by exposure to the elements.  If you take a picture of a young tree and a very old tree and scale them to the same size, they look very different, with recognizable differences in trunk girth, shape of the crown, and density of fine branching. 

So, back to the original question: “How do you keep bonsai small?”  The simple and obvious answer is that you trim them aggressively.  You cut the branches back to reduce the distance between buds and to encourage taper and denser, finer growth.  This helps to CREATE THE ILLUSION OF A LARGE, OLD TREE.  You trim the roots to encourage a fine, dense, healthy root mass with a higher proportion of root hairs to woody roots.  By cutting back the top and the bottom, you allow the trunk in the middle to continue to grow and develop, enhancing taper in both directions.  By reducing the root mass, you are able to place the trees in ridiculously small pots, further creating the illusion of size and age, and causing the tree to appear to defy gravity.  (Although as we know, it is actually wired into the pot to keep it from falling over.) 

However, the other, more complicated part of the answer involves nature vs. nurture.  By forcing the tree to deal with limiting conditions, the tree learns to develop new ways of coping: growing smaller leaves, reconstituting its root mass, throwing out new branches where none existed before, adapting to new nutrient supplies.   In essence, we convince the tree that it can make a better living as a small tree than as a large one.  In so doing, we create large, old trees out of little, much younger ones, and we keep our old trees small.

So bonsai enthusiasts: the next time someone asks you how you keep your trees so small, look thoughtful and reply: “I don’t keep my trees small.  They do it themselves.”    Then smile and change the subject. 

Let’s keep the illusion and the paradox intact.


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I will never look at a bonsai the same way again, after reading this. Thanks for expanding my knowledge, Jeff. (It seriously needs expansion.)
Just an interesting side note: My "most read" post on OS ("Dawn Redwood As Bonsai") in one that received few views and only four comments internally, but went viral out on the net. People have contacted me from China to Sweden to Michigan. I'm curious as to how this does...
Wow, this was enlightening. Although, I did not know they were wired into the small pots. ;)

"Bonsai is really no more than an illusion that inhabits the intersection of science, art and horticulture." Beautifully put.
It's a great hobby and quite interesting. I was not aware of the use of Dawn Redwood as Bonsai. We are talking Metasequoia glyptostroboides, correct?
The sight of bonsai always makes me pensive. I think I know why.
Okay this brings to mind the Karate Kid movie, it is a difficult pursuit, to keep a Bonsai in the mind that it is supposed to matter, isn't it. To put into more complex thought, it is in keeping small things simple, and tending towards not letting the "other" extenuating circumstances in life take up your life, isn't that some of the paradox?
Great post!!! Because yes, this is something I've always wondered :) Would love to see more Bonsai posts and photos...please?
Mom: The Karate Kid actually has little to do with bonsai, and everything to do with conjured Hollywood oriental mystique. They are trees, just like the maple in your front yard. (NOTE: I know lots of people who do bonsai but not one of them can catch a fly with a chop stick.)
My Dad used to raise/grow/cultivate Bonsai trees. At first I was too young and then too adolescent to listen to him discuss the process.
How I wish I had.

Thank you for this.
Good read. Thanks. I'll toot my son's horn again.
I brag Michael worked at the National Bonsai Center.
He helped organize the 5th World Bonsai Convention.
I got a blue `Bonsai bag. I carry clutter and some book.
You were there? You probably have a courtesy Bonsai.
Stone collections are fascinating. People collect stones.
One gift stone from Japan cost $250,000. Ay, Amazing.
Everybody should try a Bonsai. It's a prune meditation.
Art James: Yes, I was at the 5th World Conference in D.C. I have that blue bag.
I've always been fascinated by bonsai, though I managed to kill my only attempt at it. You explain the science and art of it--the magic of it--with the same craft you bring to cultivating them.