I recently dipped my toes into the world of bonsai. It all started last spring with Sammy the Squirrel, my frenemy and garden nemesis, who planted a Coast Live Oak acorn in a potted mint plant that I was going to give away. I have no room to plant a full-sized oak tree, but I couldn’t bear to kill it, so I decided to re-pot it with the intention of raising it as a bonsai. I didn’t know this at the time, but this essentially means keeping the tree alive and thriving for the first few years of its life until it’s ready to start shaping into a miniature tree. In the meantime, I wanted to start developing my skills so that when my little oak tree was ready, I had some idea of what to do with it.
I decided to join the East Bay Bonsai Society, which is a wonderful community of bonsai enthusiasts and an amazing resource for beginners like me. At the first meeting, I met another beginner who had started a little rosemary bonsai. “Ingenious,” I exclaimed! Rosemary is a woody herb that’s plentiful and hardy, and it seemed like the perfect practice vehicle. It just so happened that I had a spare pot of rosemary that I had grown from a cutting, so I decided to convert that into a bonsai.
I brought my plant to the East Bay Bonsai Society’s annual re-potting party. Folks there were incredibly generous, and they walked me through the necessary steps to fit my rosemary into a tiny bonsai pot. Part of the process consisted of doing some initial pruning so that the rosemary could focus its attention on regenerating its roots rather than on supporting excess foliage. One of the members, Ian, offered some basic rules of thumb to guide me through the process.
One of those guidelines was to trim branches that were growing downward. Those branches were shielded from the light, and they likely were going to grow weak and die anyway. I found a stem that had a branch growing up and a branch growing down, and I said, “So do you think I should trim this downward branch?”
Ian paused. “Maybe,” he said. “But, you could also trim the upward branch, which would expose the downward branch to light and cause the branch to curve upward again. That might give you an interesting shape in the future. It’s up to you!”
Ian didn’t realize it, but he had cemented my faith in him as a teacher. As a beginner, I found the idea of pruning even a small herb overwhelming. I had no idea what I was doing, and no vision for what I wanted it to eventually be. I needed guidance, but I didn’t want to blindly follow a set of rules without understanding their intent. I didn’t want to know what to do, I wanted to know how to think about it. Ian provided that for me and then some. He offered a rule, then gave me permission to break it and explained when I might want to do that.
I chose to prune the upward branch. I want to see what happens for myself, and the cost of “failure” is small right now. Maybe the downward branch won’t turn into anything interesting. Maybe it will end up dying anyway. Maybe I’ll end up pruning downward branches 99 times out of 100. It doesn’t matter. I won’t learn unless I try.