Less is More?

Posted by on Dec 13, 2014 | No Comments
Less is More?

There is a whole school of thought in bonsai that less is more. The idea is that if you eliminate something from a tree you sometimes end up with a result that is more interesting and a better bonsai. On the other hand, it’s also possible that if you go cutting branches off willy nilly that you’re just going to end up with a bonsai that looks hacked up. Frequently, not only does the tree not look better, it actually looks worse.

I’m not much of a fan of bonsai by subtraction, which is what this is. As you may be able to tell from most of the posts on this blog, I tend to grow things into bonsai rather than chop them down into bonsai. While both approaches are valid, the chop-down approach seems to be an excuse to always be making large cuts followed by carving efforts to make a tree more compact and more powerful.

Some careful consideration is needed when eliminating large branches from trees, particularly when the tree is old or well established. There is what I like to call “the first-brancher”; which is a tree that has been cut back all the way to nothing but the first branch of the original composition. This frequently ends up producing a tree that is much simpler, but depending on the trunk movement, not necessarily more interesting.

The small informal upright black pine in early October 2014 as I offered it for sale.

A small informal upright black pine in early October 2014 as I offered it for sale.

This little pine had been sitting around my yard for a few months, one of a large batch of trees that I got all at the same time. I had previously offered it for sale to a few people but nobody seemed interested. The tree’s problem is that while there is some good trunk movement and an interesting nebari, the branching is too long to be a nice little compact informal upright. Grafting back foliage onto the larger old branches may have solved the problem, that would take a couple years to accomplish. Growing out a sacrifice branch to increase the trunk size also could have changed the proportions enough to make the tree significantly higher quality, that would take at least 2-3 years or perhaps 4-5 depending on the finished size. But, as I sat wiring the tree and bending the branches I suddenly decided that less would probably be more in the case of this tree.

Mid-wiring a different tree appeared.   I had bent the lower two branches down and inward to make the tree more compact in more interesting.    But, the awkward low branch on the right didn't quite agree with me even after I bent it.

Mid-wiring a different tree appeared. I had bent the lower two branches down and inward to make the tree more compact and more interesting. But, the awkward low branch on the right didn’t quite agree with me even after I bent it.

The low branch on the right from the side.   I had bent and twisted it to accentuate some movement that was already there and to get the foliage where I wanted it to be in the composition.   But it just didn't quite work.

The low branch on the right from the side. I had bent and twisted it to accentuate some movement that was already there and to get the foliage where I wanted it to be in the composition. But it just didn’t quite work.

The trunk section above the second branch is also not very interesting.   And, the branching that makes up the top portion of the tree is almost as large as the trunk itself.    I sat looking at this for a while, then had the idea to make the space between the to lower branches and these shorter by bending the upper section of the trunk.    Unfortunately, a few tweaks with my fingers told me that not only would this not greatly improve the tree, but that it was going to be difficult to set the section.   It seems that the tree had been weak for a while and black pines tend to make very stiff wood when they are unhealthy.

The trunk section above the second branch is also not very interesting. And, the branching that makes up the top portion of the tree is almost as large as the trunk itself. I sat looking at this for a while, then had the idea to make the space between the two lower and upper branches shorter by bending the upper section of the trunk. Unfortunately, a few tweaks with my fingers told me that not only would this not greatly improve the tree, but that it was going to be difficult to get the section of trunk to set into its new position. It seems that the tree had been weak for a while and black pines tend to make very stiff wood when they are unhealthy.

After analyzing the low right branch and the top and finding them lacking I found myself staring at the second branch and the trunk line that lead to it. The tree seemed all of a sudden much much better than it had before. If you can make a tree drastically better than it was by eliminating something, then less is more!

Using the camera to visualize what the tree will look like when it is just the one branch.

Using the camera to visualize what the tree will look like when it is just the one branch.

Off comes the top!

Off comes the top!

Off comes the first branch!

Off comes the first branch!

The tree after reducing to just the second branch.    The composition is much clearer, more compact and more interesting.

The tree after reducing to just the second branch. The composition is much clearer, more compact and more interesting.

After reducing the stubs and cleaning up a little.   The tree is leaning back from the viewer, so it will have to be tilted up at repotting time.

After reducing the stubs and cleaning up a little. The tree is leaning back from the viewer, so it will have to be tilted up at repotting time.

It will take about 2-3 years to get the crown to look full, or perhaps longer. But there is no doubt in my mind that this is a better bonsai than what it was before! So, at least in this case, less is more!