How to Trim Bonsai Like a Master
One writer follows Mr. Miyagi’s instruction and finds focus shaping trees
Anyone who’s watched The Karate Kid knows that Mr. Miyagi had a fondness for bonsai trees. He meticulously trimmed them in his shop and in his home, and Karate Kid 3 was all about saving a bonsai tree. Heck, a bonsai was even his dojo’s symbol that appeared on the gi (karate clothing).
And now I, too, have a fondness for bonsai. I owe much to Mr. Miyagi (played by Japanese actor Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, who died in 2005).
I credit nostalgia. I’m a 1980s kid, and like any good and proper ’80s kid, I grew up on a steady diet of cartoons created to sell toys, Duran Duran and, of course, The Karate Kid. I was one of thousands (millions?) of kids practicing the crane kick in my backyard, on top of whatever stump I could get my grubby little feet on.
I even gave a karate class a go, but the multipurpose room at the local YMCA in Columbus, Ohio, just didn’t compare to Miyagi-do karate. And besides, is it even possible to learn karate without sanding or painting?
At the end of the day, I didn’t have a bully to ward off, and Sensei Doug wasn’t charismatic enough to keep me engaged. I moved on to bigger and better things, such as slap bracelets and recording Van Halen songs off the radio to round out my killer mix tapes.
Fast-forward 20-plus years to the Groundhog Day-esqe repetitive nature of COVID lockdowns. My wife and I have two young children, who made it their mission to bludgeon my sanity with YouTube videos, video games and endless requests for whatever new (and terrible) toy appeared during the last commercial break. We love our outdoor time, but we live in the South and can only be so active when it is approximately 200 degrees with 150 percent humidity.
One day after putting the kids down for the night, I was on Netflix when it recommended Cobra Kai, a 2018 reboot of the popular ’80s film franchise. I’d heard about this show but assumed it was just a joke regarding the lack of original intellectual property coming out of Hollywood, like going back to the well 10 times with The Fast & the Furious franchise, when six was obviously the right amount.
But it was real and starred two of the original cast: Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka). I was immediately all in and binged four seasons in under a week, with no regrets. My wife, two kids and I also rewatched the first three Karate Kid movies and considered changing the name of our 4-year old to Daniel. It was rad.
While revisiting the Karate Kid Cinematic Universe (the KKCU?), something became apparent that I didn’t catch the first time around: Mr. Miyagi really likes bonsai, and I’ll be darned if the KKCU (I’m just going to make this a thing now) didn’t get me to bite and proceed to set the hook with the fantastic trees in seemingly every other scene in Cobra Kai.
I find bonsai, roughly translated from Japanese to “tree in a pot,” to be particularly appealing. It addresses my twin hearts: art and horticulture, the science of growing things. Bonsai’s goal is creating a miniature version (the art bit) of a very old tree (the horticulture bit). Any tree species can be a bonsai, but some are better suited to life in a pot and miniaturization. What started out as a dopey hobby borne from my Karate Kid bingeing ended up having a transformative effect on me. Like a grasshopper to a butterfly, or something like that.
I went to my local nursery in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and purchased a bonsai pot, soil and training wire. Then I moseyed to the Home Depot and plucked a dwarf Alberta spruce in a 3-gallon pot from a sale rack. Almost any tree can be turned into a bonsai, and my first one was going to be a clearance-special training tree. I named him Daniel — Danny, for short.
After I put Danny in the pot, I broke out my pruning shears, went to town and proceeded to make a whole mess of beginner mistakes. I had retained just enough information from KK1 and Reddit to be dangerous, but not enough to even approach being good. Here’s my first piece of advice: You can always cut a branch off, but you can’t put it back. This is particularly true with conifers (cone-bearing trees). I aspired for an ancient, wise tree that might invoke memories of Mr. Miyagi. Instead, I ended up with an anemic model of 1984 Ralph Macchio.
I can’t stress patience enough, particularly when you’re just learning the ropes. Now, it’s not uncommon for me to style some of my more developed trees over the course of several days. The professionals on YouTube will style a similar tree in about 15 minutes. Don’t worry about them. They’re already Miyagis. You and I aren’t. Yet.
I realized that, like Daniel, I needed a sensei. Thus began a journey throughout the South to find my next bonsai and master.
My first stop was the Painted Lady Bonsai in Wilmington, North Carolina. There, I met owner Ronnie Sellers, someone who seemed to be winding down his bonsai career (after once being the largest bonsai nursery in the state) and simultaneously winding up his MMA referee career. He was the perfect sensei. Ronnie offers free wiring classes (many bonsai artists use wire to direct growth) for junipers on a weekly basis. I highly suggest finding your own Ronnie and making friends. If you can find a Ronnie in a swell town with great microbreweries and restaurants, that’s all the better.
I left Wilmington with five pots and five humble elm trees, which I think are the best trees for beginners. Elms tend to be very hard to kill and have great features for bonsai, including the potential for fine twigging and leaves that you can train to get significantly smaller over time.
The great thing about going to a bonsai nursery and picking out a tree is the absolute wealth of information at your fingertips. Bonsai can be intimidating, especially when you’re starting out, but most nursery employees understand that a happy and well-informed customer is one who comes back to buy more trees. Don’t be a quitter: If your first tree dies, don’t make it the last tree you ever buy.
Next up: moss. Many bonsai masters incorporate moss into their work. Aesthetically, it helps create the illusion of grass under a large, old tree. Functionally, it helps the soil retain moisture and insulates the tree in winter. I know next to nothing about moss, but luckily, I stumbled upon Mountain Moss, a mossery located in Brevard, North Carolina. I reached out to owner Annie Martin, whose business offers landscaping services, lectures and workshops. She advocates for the integration of moss into landscape design, recommending that moss should be featured and intentionally planted — not be something scraped away or covered up with grass.
While bonsai is not Mountain Moss’ primary (or secondary, for that matter) focus, Annie has shipped moss across the nation to bonsai artists preparing for bonsai shows .
“The most commonly used species is Bryum argenteum, but there are so many other, more interesting options out there,” she told me. Bryum argenteum is preferred for shows due to its resemblance to a miniature, dense grass mat. She recommends Hedwigia ciliata, a shag carpet-esque moss that wouldn’t look out of place on the headliner of a ’68 VW Microbus. Like Bryum argenteum, it naturally grows on rocks, concrete and about anything else, making it a perfect match for the largely inorganic substrates used in bonsai. Other, more interesting options might be Endtodon, Atrichum, Bryoandersonia and Ceratodon — depending on your aesthetic preferences.
The easiest way to apply moss is to order a sheet from Annie or your local moss person, and to lay it down in one piece. If you don’t have that much, you can spread out pieces and wait for it to spread over time. Either way, once the moss is positioned, give it a good watering and press down on it as hard as possible, without hurting your tree. That’s it. You’re done!
Preparing your own bonsai dojo
Mr. Miyagi always dropped nuggets of wisdom on Daniel. Now it’s my turn to wax (on) poetic about some pointers I’ve learned from sensei across the South as well as from the sensei of senseis, the internet.
1. “Trust the quality of what you know, not the quantity.” —Mr. Miyagi, Karate Kid 1
There is a lot of bad information out there. Find sources you trust. I’ve found the Reddit sub reddit.com/r/Bonsai to be an invaluable source of information. There are other online forums that are great. Most of these communities are very welcoming. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, but be sure you do your homework first. If you’re a book person, Peter Chan’s Bonsai: The Art of Growing and Keeping Miniature Trees is a fantastic resource — as are his other books.
2. “Wax on, wax off.” —Mr. Miyagi, Karate Kid 1
Learn your basics, even if you don’t fully grasp the concept yet. Build up your skill set slowly so that you won’t go and make a Danny of your first tree. Also, familiarize yourself with USDA hardiness zones, and select trees compatible with your locale. Remember, these trees have the potential to be hundreds, if not thousands, of years old. So have the patience to do things correctly. A day/week/month/season is nothing to these trees (unless you forget to water them). They have waited, so you can, too. A common strategy to help mitigate the “doing something” itch is to simply get more trees, so you’ll always have something to do. Then get a few more, just in case. I went from the one Danny in November 2020 to 12 trees by May 2022, with another 12 currently in pots after being collected about two weeks ago.
3. “You mess with a cobra, you get the fangs.” —Stingray, Cobra Kai (Season 4, Episode 8)
One of the unexpected perks of bonsai is that you’ll start to appreciate trees in a whole new light. You’ll see large, mature trees as beacons of inspiration — but you’ll also notice smaller trees and think, Yeah, I could bonsai that. If you see the latter, by all means, please do! Just make sure you have permission to collect if you’re on private land, or make sure you have the proper permits to collect on public property. Often, these can be obtained through the U.S. Forest Service for around $20 per plant. Landowners and government entities are not cobras you want to mess with, so be sure you’re in order before your first shovel strike. You also want to make sure what you’re collecting is within your skill level to collect and keep.
4. “Quiet!” —Johnny Lawrence, Cobra Kai (Season 1, often)
Another great thing about bonsai trees is that they don’t talk. My favorite part of each day is the 10 minutes or so I spend watering in the morning. If you take up bonsai, this will become a daily ritual. The soil you use will require frequent, if not daily, watering, so make the most of it and enjoy the peace. Mature trees line my backyard, and I listen to the birdsong while I center myself for whatever the day may hold. It’s truly a slice of heaven — at least until the neighboring bar (thanks, Myrtle Beach) fires up its sound system and I’m soothed by the dulcet tones of off-pitch ZZ Top karaoke.
The next ‘Karate Kid’
Ultimately, Danny the bonsai tree isn’t going to win any beauty contests, but he will win a dance-off with a hurricane. Don’t be afraid to take chances and enjoy the process. For me, this was life-altering. I’m more centered and more at peace, and my hobby won’t break the bank.
They say the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, but the second-best time is today. Go find a bonsai expert of your own to help you train, but choose wisely. It’s like Mr. Miyagi said: “No such thing as bad student, only bad teacher.”
Now if I can just learn how to catch a fly with chopsticks.
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