By David Fukumoto with drawings by Ryan Chang (Waipahu, Oahu, Hawaii)

            This is a unique article that shares with Journal readers the teaching of various bonsai principles by first learning to draw plants to scale.  Then the greater challenge is to create sequential drawings to predict and demonstrate how the tree will be developed. This is the challenge of bonsai and most hobbyists have a difficult time.  Drawing is a major learning tool for those who want to train the primary structural portions of younger trees and guide them into unique designs.  This method reflects a person's knowledge of how plants grow and how it should (or will likely react) when given vigorous growth.  For the drawing to be correct,  the person must really understand how the plant will react and develop.  So besides being a drawing lesson,  its a different type of bonsai lesson.

             There are many ways to do bonsai and some of the greatest bonsai masters are known to have exceptional horticultural knowledge,  design innovations, and exceptional skills to execute their visions.  Two such individuals who were my mentors had these traits.  Being engineering oriented, this is also the basic method that I utilize. The concept is based upon bonsai being a "thinking man's game."  It requires careful pre-planning and creating a long-term development strategy for each bonsai arrangement. 

            The late Japanese grand master Saburo Kato was exceptionally gifted with extraordinary horticultural knowledge of how trees grew and was an effective leader who guided diverse individuals into effectively working together.  He was a master of forest arrangements and often said that creating a harmonious beautiful forest arrangement may be complex, but follows a person's social and leadership abilities.  He was part of the brain trust that developed the Japanese bonsai codification system that described "Five Basic Styles" of single apex tier branch structured trees.  More information about Saburo Kato is bundled in the portal page at www.fukubonsai.com/2a3.html

            The late American master John Naka also was exceptionally gifted and created bonsai designs based upon selected features of gnarled collected trees.  He first reduced the collected tree to its essence and retained the key traits.  He then explained how he would build out and make progress toward his envisioned design with the aid of drawings. 

            The ability to draw to scale is very helpful in teaching members of our fast-track study group and as the leader, Ryan Chang's lesson is being shared.  Ryan is a very prolific student and responds and creates drawings very rapidly.  He takes direct critiques in a very positive manner so he is a joy to teach!


            FEBRUARY 8, 2013:  This photo was taken shortly after Ryan's Big Island 1:10 Project workshop at Fuku-Bonsai showing the Sumo planting.
           JUNE 19, 2013:   The same tree just a little over four months later with exceptional growth!  It was selected as the subject plant to teach plant growth and bonsai training strategies.  The first major challenge to become an effective bonsai trainer is to develop the ability to produce exceptional growth and Ryan is mastering this.  His first assignment was to draw the tree to scale.
          Lines were drawn 1" apart to represent 2".  The saucer was 9" so it would be 4 1/2 squares long.  But Ryan's new apical trunk thickness and two major branches are too heavy and he was asked to resubmit a more accurate drawing, another drawing to a 1"=4" scale to show how tall the tree must grow before being reduced, and a third drawing to show the results of the first major reduction.  (Drawing #1)
           JUNE 20:   A day later the revised and two additional drawings were received by email. Drawing #2 is closer to scale and the blue lines show future vertical cuts to encourage upwards growth and a yellow flat cut to encourage down and sideways growth. (Drawing #2)
             Drawing #3 drawn to 1"=4" scale shows the tree allowed to grow about 28" tall before the first major reduction.  This will create a better taper.  When the top branch and foliage growth of a  tree is dramatically reduced without any root reduction,  there will be a equally dramatic regrowth.  The selection of growth in desirable positions pointing in the ideal direction will improve the shape.  Remove extra growth to create stronger growth of the ones selected.  
            Drawing #4 was to show an enlarged view of the results after the first cut. This drawing has many  problems and after a lesson, Ryan was asked to submit a revised drawing.
            JUNE 28 (Redone Drawing #4B).  Problems:  1)  Roots not to scale. 2) Lower left branch reverses "flat cut" an new growth emerging from wrong area.  3) Lower right branch too long as new growth desired close to new apical section.  4) Apical section too short!  Needs to allow several new major branches. Ryan was asked to submit a revised drawing.
             JULY 4 (Second revised Drawing #4C). Although there are many improvements in this set of sketches,  several areas must be improved.  It is difficult to critique one who has obviously devoted a lot of time and effort.  But faced with Ryan having a limited future without enough attention to detail, or unleashing the potential of a truly inspiring person, I chose to become a tough taskmaster but encouraged Ryan not to give up ---  YOU'RE GETTING THERE! 

              Improvements: 1) Better replacement apical growth (but should show more and stronger growth points).  2) Better treatment of lower right branch and showing emergence of new growth in better position.  

              Problems:  1) Root scale was not corrected.  2) Lower left branch "flat cut" not corrected. 3) Arrows should face direction new growth will take.

            JULY 6 (Third revised Drawing #4D).  There are numerous improvements in this drawing and it indicates that Ryan now better understands why there are vertical and flat cuts and the type of growth that will result from each. To be an effective bonsai trainer, you must have an idea of how growth is occurring below the soil line to reflect the visible growth above the soil line.  You need to be able to create vigorous plant growth because when you radically prune such trees, you'll get a lot of strong new growth to allow you to retain the ones you want and remove the excess.  But if you prune a tree growing poorly,  you may go backwards as you may get a lot of die-back!  DON'T TRAIN WEAK TREES!



             When David first mentioned drawing, I was excited up to the point when I found out, how horrible my skills were to be able to make a credible drawing.  After each attempt, I felt okay this is the one.  Then I’ll get the critique, which pointed out my mistakes. I didn’t really see it until David pointed it out; and how each drawing relates to each other.  Then I attempted to draw the 4D& 5D, and immediately felt those were my best ones.  

            Keeping my focus was a problem during my drawings as I would always forget to keep the roots or branches to scale, and I would just free hand everything.  David then showed me a technique in which he used a ruler for most of the tree.   Then later, he showed me how to use tracing paper properly and trace the leaves instead of trying to free hand them.   I based the new growth on what I have been observing in all my plants.  Watching them grow is a joy because they grow so quickly.  I have a Japanese pine cutting that is store bought from before I acquired the Dwarf Schefflera plants. It is roughly the same size as the day I bought it. Even though a few growth points will differ from what I predicted, I believe my tree will stay close to the drawing.

           At first I thought that a simple half-ass drawing would do. But I now see why David treasures this as a great learning (and teaching) tool.  If you can do these drawings, then you can properly visualize what will happen months or years down the road.  And by knowing this, it will help in developing a bonsai tree that will be your masterpiece.  Before, I would probably say to myself “well, we’ll see what happens”. 

           Now, when I look at my plants, I can see the cuts I want to make easily, and see what will happen months from now, and hope what it will look like in a few years.   Being able to choose a style, plan and execute, then change/control the growth is an outcome of the benefit of drawing and planning.  With all that being said, I look forward to drawing my dragons as I’m already feeling it will be a challenge!     ---Ryan 



            Many want to "grow bonsai" but with just one or two bonsai at a time.  But they plan to replace and buy another one when they kill one.  They believe that just keeping their store-bought tree alive is "growing bonsai."  Everyone likes to "grow bonsai,"   but unless there are plans to grow more plants and study,  joining our study groups doesn't make sense.   

            Relatively few really want to train and develop bonsai and I invite these individuals to join the study groups to get access to choice prepared bonsai stock and personalized assistance.  You'll need to be able to photograph and report to provide articles for this Journal of Tropical & True Indoor and in doing so,  you'll share your learning experience with the readers who enjoy "growing bonsai." Each member in the study groups is different with very different levels of interest, skills, and preferred ways to learn. 

           Training bonsai is challenging but very possible to learn.  A while back I came up with what I call the three rules for bonsai success:  1)  Grow only trees that will grow well for you in your environment, or change your environment and practices to provide the needs of your plant.  2) For rapid progress and to avoid the most difficult initial years, start with as much character as possible.   And 3) Learn to grow the trees well!

           Fuku-Bonsai customers start with the first two rules covered and the remaining challenge is to learn to grow the trees well.  For those who can it is relatively easy to learn maintenance training to keep a partially trained tree in shape and to refine that shape.  For those who want to create a larger bonsai with more character,  training bonsai is as challenging as you want it to be.  But you need to grow the trees strongly and learn the basic principles.

           If you start with a tree with a thick trunk base that was created by heavy reduction,  select a new growth point and encourage it to grow strongly until the base of that section is at least 50% of the thickness of the heavy trunk base.  Then prune it with a vertical cut about 2-3 diameters above where that section began.  In doing so,  you should get multiple new growth points.  With very strong growth like Ryan's,  he may get 4 to 8 new growth points! 

          Select the top most one to become the new primary apical growth and repot so that apical growth is facing straight up for strongest growth.  Then select which ones to retain as future branches and remove the excess.  Then work on the main branches and get branches to grow outwards and downwards.  Pinch off growth on top of branches and encourage branches from the sides or bottom of branches.  Then push the growth to set up another future major reduction.  With each such series, trunks get larger with more and better branches and improved shape. 

         To help Ryan and others to understand the later stages of creating the branches that would be the major structural elements to form the top of the tree, I wrote "LESSON #7:  CREATING THE CROWN" which is also in this issue.

          Of course you've got to have an idea of what you are trying to create and as your drawing skills improve,  you'll be able to give others a better idea of your vision.  Vision and drawings work together and it's great if you can develop both!    ~~~David

***  Return to July 2013 issue of Journal of Tropical & True Indoor Bonsai
***  Go to Mid-Pacific Bonsai Foundation website
***  Go to Fuku-Bonsai website
       ©  Mid-Pacific Bonsai Foundation and Fuku-Bonsai, 2013