Overwintering the Bonsai Artist Steve Moore

Overwintering the Bonsai Artist
by Steve Moore, Fort Wayne Bonsai Club

Much is said, and written, on the topic of overwintering bonsai: different forms of protection, what to do with half-hardy and tropical trees, and so on. All this is important and necessary, and I hope all my readers are ready to give their trees proper care over the coming winter. But a thought occurred to me: what about the human involved? What about the bonsaiist whose trees may all be tucked away, out of reach for several months? What can he or she do to put the winter to good use? This is an especially pertinent question for those who don’t grow tropicals. Actually, there are a number of things that can be done to make winter more than just an empty gap between fall and spring. Let me offer some suggestions that I hope you will find profitable.


Winter is a very good time for studying. One bonsaiist I know chooses not to grow tropicals just so she’ll have the winter free for study! Is there a technique you want to understand, a design principle that isn't clear yet, some species that you'd like to try but about which you want to know more first? There are a number of good resources available to those who want to learn.

1. Books. Good bonsai books are available in many bookstores, especially the larger ones; your club library may have some good titles; and both the American Bonsai Society and Bonsai Clubs International offer book services to their members.

One suggestion: don’t limit yourself to books strictly on bonsai. A good book on trees, for example, could give you a better grasp of the shapes and growth habits you want your bonsai to reflect; a book on botany-for-gardeners can be very helpful in keeping your trees alive and healthy.

2. Periodicals. A good bonsai magazine can, over time, be just as useful as a good book. Magazine articles often go into more depth and detail on a particular subject than a page in a book can.

Four English-language bonsai magazines are well worth the money, in my judgment:

BONSAI: Journal of the American Bonsai Society;
Bonsai Today;
International Bonsai;
Bonsai Magazine, from Bonsai Clubs International.

Of these, the one I personally find most useful and informative is the ABS Journal.

Your own club’s publications. Many clubs offer newsletters, essays (like this one), plant-care guides, and other materials. These are all intended to advance the members’ understanding and knowledge of the art of bonsai. One advantage of studying an in-house publication is that if you have a question, it’s easy to ask the author!

The Internet and the World Wide Web. There are some excellent bonsai resources now available on-line. You can consult species-care guides, view pictures of fine trees, join discussion groups, and a lot more. Here are the URL’s for five good sites; most of these offer links to other bonsai-related sites, as well.

American Bonsai Society: /www.absbonsai.org
Bonsai Clubs International: www.bonsai-bci.com
Mid-America Bonsai Alliance (MABA): www.mababonsai.org
Internet Bonsai Club: http://users.nbn.net/~herrfam/
The Bonsaiweb: www.bonsaiweb.com


1. Take pictures of your trees before you put them into winter quarters. Wait until deciduous trees have shed their leaves: the branch structure will be revealed. Take pictures from a number of different angles. I suggest using both color and black-and-white film, since certain features will show up better on one than on the other.

Once you get the pictures back, study them, and as you do, ask yourself some questions. What do I want this tree to look like in five years? What can I do to bring that about? Do I see flaws in this bonsai? If so, what can I do about them?

If the tree isn’t yet styled, look for the best possible style and shape for that tree; if it is, look for ways to improve and enhance the design. Let your imagination play with different shapes, different possibilities. Take your time; you’ve got all winter!

2. Take pictures of trees in the landscape. Again, when a tree is leafless, its structure is revealed, so winter is a good time to do this. As you drive around, keep your eyes open for trees that catch your eye, trees that you find interesting and appealing. When you find one, go back with your camera and shoot some pictures. Again, I suggest shooting from several different angles, and using both color and B&W film.

These photos will serve as models, on which you can base the designs of your bonsai. Studying trees, and pictures of trees, will have another benefit: it will improve your feel for their natural appearance and growth habits


1. Maintain your records. Winter is a good time to update your records, or to set up a record-keeping system if you don't yet have one. If you're setting up a records system, let me urge you - strongly! - to choose one with which you are comfortable: you’ll be a lot more likely to use it!

2. Maintain your equipment. Now is the time to clean any tools that still need it; sharpen what needs to be sharpened, or have it done; replace any tools that are worn out or broken. Clean and oil your pots. Replenish your supplies of wire, soil or soil ingredients, cut paste, and other necessities.

I hope you find these suggestions useful. When spring comes, I hope your tools will be ready, your plans will be ready, and most important, you'll be ready. Meanwhile, I hope these ideas will keep you from going frantic from bonsai-deprivation, and trying to prune and wire your spouse's fingers!

(Adapted from the November, 1999 "Stuff from Steve," a regular column in the Warsaw Bonsai Club newsletter.)