Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Design = science, horticulture = art?

Don't blame me if we never get to last weekend's show report - someone had to ask an intelligent question. Not to be outdone, I have to try and pretend to give an equally intelligent answer.

So here is Sage's comment from the previous post, which sparked this off:

I was at the meeting getting a bit of design advice and a bit of horticulture advice. Everyone was giving me pretty much the same design advice, and every person had different horticulture advice. Design = science, horticulture = art?

I can only speak from my experience, but would be interested to hear from anyone who has a dissimilar (or not) point of view.

On the surface, I would have assumed it would be the other way around. But isn't talking horticulture to a certain extent a bit like talking to doctors - every time you see a different specialist you get a different answer. And yet, we all view medicine as a science; and science, because it's - well - science, has to be an exact and well-defined thing - like maths, right? (If anyone mentions fuzzy maths at this point I will shoot them, OK?)

Let's just take the growing medium bit, which has nothing to do with design. Everyone has their own mix which they will defend to the death and beyond. A good friend who has been doing bonsai for over 20 years told me the story of 2 British bonsai old-timers who, in the 1990's, got into an argument over the perfect soil mix. The argument put a big dent in what had been a long-standing friendship and I believe they never really made it up, although after 10 years they did start acknowledging each other. One of the old gents has now passed away, so it's just as well that breach had been mended.

Every serious gardener that I know has their own understanding of how the horticultural universe rotates and, while they are generally free with dispensing their knowledge, I think if one combined all the various growing techniques and applied them all to a single plant, the poor thing would be dead within a week. I actually do know a person who flits from bonsai expert to bonsai expert, asking for advice on said person's trees. Said person is perpetually dissatisfied with the trees' development. Which IMO is only to be expected of the trees, after having been subjected to a mishmash of what are probably contradictory techniques over several years. My take is this: if experimenting with different growing methods, confine a single set of teachings to a single tree, and never mix-&-match trees & teachings unless you are totally sure of what you are doing (and even then I wish you luck). So if you want to test whether the pine candle-plucking vs the candle-breaking method produces better results, do one or the other on a specific tree - and follow it from beginning to end (e.g. watering, light, feeding, needle stripping vs cutting, etc). Doing a bit of one with a bit of the other is my idea of a recipe for disaster.

I personally solicit advice only from a very small number of people, each one having a different horticultural specialisation. I have known these people for years and have seen their work develop over time. You could count these people on the fingers of one hand; none of them are considered 'superstars' of the British bonsai scene. This isn't to denigrate the Brit big names at all, some of whom I've known for yonks and have been down to speak at our club several times. (Our club can tell you stories like you won't believe... which is beside the point here.) Anyways, it's about proximity and access to information - I've identified the gaps in my skills/experience, decided what sort of specialist knowledge I need to fill these gaps, and chosen the best people I know who hold said knowledge and with whom I'm in constant contact. While I do listen to new theories that come along, I only put these to the test when I've heard glowing reports from someone that I trust.

And, all things considered, it's all a bit situational, isn't it? What works in Japan where they have longer growing seasons & high relative humidity will not produce the same results in the UK climate. Which is why I still stick to Alex Kennedy's satsuki growing methods, even if newer books have come out (but have been written for a climate like California's, for example). It's not that one's wrong, it's just that is what will work best under a given set of circumstances.

The same goes for the pruning-to-maximise-auxin-and-cytokinin-effects school of thought. The knowledge of plant hormones and their functions has been around since the early 90's AFAIK, but it's only in the past couple of years that I heard of it in practical application to bonsai. And I know of bonsai old-timers/big names whose eyes just glaze over when anything this technical is brought up. The basics are fairly simple to grasp, all it takes is a certain open-mindedness, I guess.

Design is probably a bit more limited by the existing material: the tree's existing shape, the habit of that particular species, placement of existing branches, etc. And, if you're like me, I go for the solution of facility: what's the most pleasing style that's easiest to achieve within the shortest period of time? I'm not the type of stylist that will drag out the rebar and bend a 6-inch thick trunk over a period of months. Although I have a great deal of respect for those who have achieved spectacular results in this way.

Searching back in my mind, we've had club members bring a tree along for styling critique and then been offered 2 or 3 options by the resident 'experts'. The subsequent consensus from the rest of the club has generally been towards the result that is easiest to visualise with the mind's eye. The tree's owner tends to gravitate to the solution that sounds the least drastic. Whether this is just the culture within my club or a reflection on human behaviour, I don't know.

That said, how much is influenced by the classic tree styles that we associate with bonsai? Perhaps it's this that subconsciously drives how people design a tree. Then again, sometimes a tree is so obviously growing in a particular way and its potential is so easily identifiable - it does happen with raw(ish) material now and again. If this is you, then you are a lucky, lucky person; especially if you got the tree for a song. It happens. And the rest of us just go green with envy.

I will leave you with TOH's description of bonsai as an art, a craft & a science, with horticulture spanning the latter two, i.e. the craft being the real-life interpretation of the science. In a simplistic example, the science bit would tell you the plants will die without water but doesn't tell you exactly how to water them within your garden's specific conditions. The craft bit will be taking the knowledge of the plants' vegetative characteristcs, an understanding of your garden's 'microclimate', mishmashing all the above and eventually not killing your plants by either over- or under-watering.

Display is another matter again.... but I think I've waffled enough about that already, right?

OK, so the photos of the show at Humbees are delayed even more than ever. They're coming, they're coming.... sheesh. ( Personally, I blame Sage :D )


  1. My favorite game at meetings is called "But Walter Pall says..." (which can be played with either design or horticulture).

    The gap between the the science of horticulture and the craft of bonsai horticulture is actually pretty huge; I haven't found much published material that I put any trust in for the basic science of bonsai care.

  2. So would the natural progression of the game become, "but my master says this, and my master outranks your master?" In which case, who is the undisputed top of the food chain?

    Or hasn't anyone sussed out that bit of the game yet? :D

  3. No, not many people identify with a single "master" at my club. Nick Lenz is the biggest name nearby, and a lot of people have trees that were designed with a lot of his input (or bought from him), but I think everyone takes what he says about anything with a pinch a salt.

    I think we pretty much accept that there's no final authority on design, although we regularly mock the perceived shortcomings of "the Japanese style" and "the European style". Actually what a few members do for definitive horticulture answers is to take their sick trees out to the State of Cnnecticut Agricultural Experiment Station.

  4. Now you've made me fly off on another tangent (again).

    What would the general image of 'Japanese style' be? Would that be the Kimura-esque swirly deadwood? Or VERY chunky shohin black pines? White pines grafted onto black pine rootstock and one big sticky-out lower branch?

    A penjing enthusiast once told me that Japanese bonsai all look alike because "they're all shaped like triangles." :D

    I remember the times we went to the Kokofu-ten and saw the Emperor's trees on display. None of them were geometric as far as I can remember. Teacher-san says he likes them because they're more natural; different from the current manicured and overly primped bonsai vogue. I personally thought they were a bit.... shhh, don't tell anyone.... underwhelming. But who would be more Japanese than the Emperor? (Gawds, I hope they let me back in to the Kokofu after this.)

    And would Popbonsai be so way beneath anyone's notice it doesn't even bear thinking of? :D

    I cannot believe I've just mentioned the Emperor's trees and Popbonsai on the same page. There's just something vaguely sacrilegious there...

  5. We usually caricature the Japanese style as "helmet trees", nice-but-artificially-shiny-bright-and-colorful trunks with helmet-shaped masses of over-dense foliage on top.

    And then the European style is when you still have a helmet shape, but you take a a few horizontal lines of the foliage to let a little bit of light through.

    And then there's Walter Pall, who has some really great naturalistic trees and some trees that are just awkward.

  6. Hmmm. I wonder how long a thread can keep going in a Comments section while getting buried under blogposts. Perhaps sending coded messages comes next :D

    Srsly, tho - am interested in how you would describe the American style?

    I can totally see where you're coming from on the Japanese/European descriptions, although it's been awhile since I've been to a Japanese show. The European shows I get to are either a tiny sampling of country offerings (e.g. EBA convention) or a sort of avant-garde meets Trad to the bones (e.g. Noelanders show). I can see the beginnings of a contemporary artsy effort, however it strikes me as being rather rough around the edges. Whether it's a coordinated effort across countries or simply individuals making a statement, I've never really delved that far.

  7. I don't know how I would describe an American style (but then again, I've only been doing bonsai for a few years, and those ideas about Japanese/European trees aren't original to me). I think that, seeing mostly American trees, I know too much about their diversity to caricature them as a coherent style. Maybe you have to view it from the outside to apprehend an American style (which is probably also true of other styles).

    I think we go for humor in our bonsai more often. Few people will get as silly as Nick Lenz, but a lot of the people in my club like to incorporate elements of humor into their work.

    We also tend to have nicer things to say about Chinese style/penjing, with "weird" (the antonym of "cookie-cutter") being the highest compliment.