As bonsai mature, they tend to fill, grow larger.   In addition, they also become more crowded, both in the canopy and in the container, with greater structural complexity. As a result, a tree that we were able to work over in an evening can now take several evenings of steady effort to accomplish something like a major wiring job, a detailed cleanout of old foliage and dead twigs, or a complete restyling.  With some tasks, like a repotting, we might even need some help.  That’s because, as our collections have matured, we too have grown a little older, and sometimes we just don’t have the energy to keep up with things the way we used to.  As a result of all this, what was once a very manageable number of trees have become overwhelming.  This is one reason collections begin to decline.

With mature bonsai, that have so much added material to work with, and even more confined spaces in which to work them, it also forces us to change our approach to the work we do.  This is no longer an initial styling that can be rough, coarse or done in some manner that sets the tree back.  We have to pay more attention and be more disciplined in our techniques and we need a more delicate hand when they are applied.  At the same time, we have to be even more ruthless when it comes to maintaining tight proportions, yet we have to be bold enough to create the right amount of open space once things get too tight, as they always do.  Timing becomes more of an issue, from consistently trimming at just the right time to keep things delicate, to changing repotting schedules to alter the initial growth spurt and produce shorter internodes.  Even pests and diseases are of greater concern as the cost of our investment is certainly much higher, but also the cost to the tree itself in the event of major structural loss which can be devastating.

Ted Matson Collection image by Ted Matson

The development of our bonsai also means more competition for our time and attention.  And, that often means other trees are neglected.  Now, sometimes a little benign neglect is a good thing as trees can recover vigor, gain more mass, or strengthen roots.  However, if we find we’re just not getting to some trees and they’re beginning to lose some essential quality, it might be time to move them out of our collection and get them into the hands of someone who will do them justice.  That’s a tough decision and it can break our heart to let one go—especially when it involves trees that we might have been working on for decades, were gifts or have other special meaning.  But, to see them go into decline is even more heartbreaking.

Some trees should be easier to eliminate than others.  We often find ourselves drawn to certain styles and species, and can find that our collections consist of a majority of what is basically the same tree, with the same proportions, the same overall form and similar character.  But, doing that same tree over and over again… what does that say about our personal growth?

Bonsai can be a celebration of the great diversity of tree forms and species to be found on the planet.  This can include seasonal color changes, flowers and/or fruit, different foliage or bark textures, sculptural or other unique characteristics, and so on.  Learning more about them and seeking out diverse material that might even challenge our artistic or horticultural skill is not a bad thing as it keeps us engaged and interested.  To focus on only one tiny aspect of this spectrum of possibilities, I think, leads to boredom with our collections over time.

How many and what trees are appropriate for a person’s bonsai collection?  Those are questions each of us has to answer for ourselves.  We hope our trees change and flourish under our care.  We hope it’s for the better in each and every case.  Learning to recognize the changes in our trees and our collections, and also the changes that are required of us in order to keep up with them—or let them go—are part of the personal growth process in bonsai.