Initial Design Concepts

Parsley hawthorn freshly styled

I have been asked quite a few times when looking at a fresh untouched tree “what would you do as far as design?”

This is not a question that can be answered in a single breath. It can not be answered in even several breaths, to be honest. There are endless ways we can approach this question and many things we must consider before we can even begin to have all the information we need to start cutting on the tree.

Before we can even pick up our concave cutters to remove “unwanted” branches, we must answer some core questions of initial design. We cannot just go to removing branches that we do not even know if we will need for the future of the design. The real challenge is leaving more branches and shoots then we would expect to use in the final design.  Do not fear wiring trunks and branches, and do not cut so much off that you leave yourself with a two-dimensional tree. Real trees have depth and a sense of openness. Just because you can cut of more so that you have less to wire does not mean it is the easiest path to a believable design. Good trees get wired once a year, great trees get wired twice a year. There is not a pause in the development of a quality bonsai.

Here are some core questions to ask when looking at a new piece of material, in no particular order:

  • Is our tree coniferous or deciduous?
  • Where does our tree live?
  • How old is our tree?
  • What environmental effects have influenced our tree’s shape?
  • What scale are we trying to achieve and is it going to be believable?

Is our tree coniferous or deciduous?

This is the one question that stumps a lot of people. What does a coniferous tree look like? What does a deciduous tree look like?

Conifers are trees that have needles or scale like foliage. Conifers are generally evergreen.  Good examples of coniferous material are pines and junipers. There should be a straightforward question to answer as to how to design these trees. Usually there is a confusion as to what pines and junipers look like and how they grow in nature. There is also the Japanese aesthetic we must consider as well.

Pines are the most used genus in Japan for bonsai. They are typically strong and hardy by selection of species: Japanese black pine, white pine, five needle pine, etc. In the United States we have several great species of pine available to us as well that grow natively. Our pines vary in shape and structure dependent on their range. I am writing this from the viewpoint of Southeastern States bonsai design. We do not have ponderosa pines and limber pines nearby but instead we have spruce pines and short needle pines. Taking note of how Southeast pines grow helps us make a few first steps towards coniferous design.

In the Japanese aesthetic pines are typically shaped into the “pine tree style” that other tree species are natively aimed towards. This style lends to every branch starting directly from the main trunk and bending down towards the earth. Pines are suited for this aesthetic, but it should not necessarily be used on other species when we are trying to evoke old age.

Junipers are in their own category, apart from pines, when it comes to design. Juniper are typically found in high mountainous areas where few other plants can survive or in arid deserts on the side of raising hills. Therefore, deadwood features play a huge part to the character of their designs. Junipers suffer a lot of drought and high winds that choke out roots and dry out foliage. This leads to portions of the tree dying back and the structure having to condense to conserve energy. So, we are going to see a lot of well-designed junipers with impressive natural deadwood and twisted branches encompassing it.

In the southeast states these types of junipers are in short supply and are not easy to observe in the wild. That does not mean that we cannot design them through the study of why they grow the way they do.

One other thing that heavily effects how conifers grow is the weight of snow in the wintertime. This is something that we go over in the environmental considerations.

Deciduous trees generally drop their leaves in the fall and go through a period of dormancy, followed by Spring growth of new leaves.  Maples, Elms, Oaks, Bald Cypress are but a few trees in this category.  These trees have a very broad range of stylings in bonsai. Deciduous species can have almost any leaf shapes you can imagine. The leaf shape of elms and maples are distinctly different for each other and they are not the only possible candidates for bonsai. Japanese maple is the most used genus in Japan for bonsai. The reason being is that Japanese maple typically have a small, interesting leaf shape as well as smooth elegant bark. In the Japan aesthetic these maples tend to be styled in a wide-open broom like shape or a clump form.

Deciduous design should not be limited to just a “maple tree style”. In the Southeastern States we can observe countless examples of what shape these trees can take. To simplify this discussion on deciduous we will explore more on the age and environment of any given species in this category.

Where does our tree live?

We touched lightly on this by answering the previous question, but this question is not inquiring about the environmental factors. Asking where does our tree lives is asking why is our tree living? What is the propose of this planting?

In bonsai we are trying to build an imaginary frame around our tree. Our bonsai should feel like a snippet of the overall image that the composition is building with the imagination filling in the rest of the scene. Our bonsai is only suggesting of the tree or trees that exist in a landscape tableau. So, if the visual is heavily based on the trees, it should be a strong image.

Species can be based on the range in which they would naturally occur, but this is not always the case. What about trees that have been planted by a person? It could have easily been planted somewhere it does not typically appear. Birds also contribute to an interesting distribution of seed. In other words, are we showing an elm tree growing in its naturally environment like on a creek side or are we showing an elm that was planting in someone’s garden? The growth habit of the two elms are going to be the same but need to be directed to represent its overall setting.

How old is our tree?

This seem like an easy question to answer but as you can probably tell from the way we are talking conceptionally about the previous questions this is going to be another deep dive.

Consider for a moment what “old” is, what age is. Age is defined as a length of time that someone or something has existed. Bonsai will not have existed for the “age” we wish to convey.  If there is anything in art that is most challenging to capture it is creating something that has believable “age.” There is a term that can be used to help simplify what we are trying to imagine here: wabi-sabi.  As things age, they naturally gain wabi-sabi.  Understanding the wabi-sabi of trees helps create the illusion of age. 

Wabi-sabi is a worldview, centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. It is a Buddhist teaching of the three marks of existence, specifically impermanence, suffering, and emptiness or absence of self-nature.

Bonsai is a fleeting concept. This idea may challenge one’s view of bonsai as an ancient art where old trees are considered the most prized.  Bonsai is fleeting because we are trying to show the story of a tree or trees that have a beginning and an imminent ending. Consider a bald cypress, a lone sentinel in a flooded wetland.  That tree did not grow up alone and once gone, it will not be replaced.  These trees do not propagate in standing water, so something changed.  We can see the origin of this tree, it’s recent past and its eventual demise.  Something else to ponder is that trees do not perceive time as you and I do. Trees live in very long cycles and show their age in subtle and distinct ways. So, we can try to capture the feeling of age by utilizing wabi-sabi in our design.

Impermanence – This is looking into the feeling that this design is fleeting and will change. When we see pictures of well-made bonsai, we are seeing a static moment in its life. The opportunist moment is capturing the tree at its time of most visual impact. Weeks later that same tree can grow out new shoots to encourage vigor and strengthen the tree for its next season. From there the artist can start making choices for the future of the evolution of the design. Bonsai is ever changing, and every tree is always in training. There is no end to training.

Suffering – This seems like a dark thing to try to depict in bonsai, but suffering makes its way into any great bonsai design. Not every year of a tree’s life is simple and easy going. Things happen such as damage from natural causes. Some examples of naturally occurring damage would be lightening strikes, high winds, drought, seasons of heavy rain or snow, various animals or insects, and even human interaction.

Emptiness or absence of self-nature – Another way to say this is “loneliness”. As mentioned before, trees do not have a concept of time. They do not experience emotions and cannot articulate how they feel. Here is the takeaway from this one, trees speak to us visually because it is in our nature to assign emotion and feeling to what we see. When we are viewing a pine tree that is hanging loftily from a cliffside all by itself, we feel a sense of stoic isolation.

Here is another thought to throw you yet deeper into all this pondering: Bonsai does not always have to depict the ancient. We can create an imagine that suggests any moment in the tree’s journey. We can show sparse youthful trees and even “mid-aged” trees.

What environmental effects have influenced our tree’s shape?

Considering all the other questions answered thus far, this one is the most simplistic question of the five. Of course, you are thinking we just talked about suffering, but this is a different thought entirely.

How has the environment effected the tree’s overall wellbeing? Answering this question kind of draws all the other questions together. So, we can start to visualize what our trees should look like relative to its species, the placement (being natural or preordained), and it’s supposed age. Now then, how do we procced with this question?

The answer is simple now, we answer this one through observation. We need to give the full-grown counterparts a visit. Take notes on how the branches grow to adapt to the environment the full-size version is existing in. Also, take note of what the surface roots look like and how other trees, if there any nearby, are affecting them. Is there competition or struggle for resources with other living things in this setting?


  1. Oak tree, its location is in a dense forest amongst several other oaks and other varieties of vegetation. It is part of new growth in this part of this eco-system and it is not very tall. It has become understory to others and must search for light. Its trunk is thin and wondering back and forth, side to side. It has sparse branching to get a better spread in the chance that light will hit it is leaves but not too many as to conserve energy. What does this tree look like in your mind?
  2. Same kind of oak tree, this time it is in the middle of a cow pasture. It was planted nearly a century ago by the father of the current farmer. Land that has been passed down to the next generation. It was planted to serve one purpose: shade. Its one job that is expected of it is to help get the sun off the cattle during the hot summer months. There is not any competition with other trees besides the occasional cow leaning against it. It becomes broad with thick lean branches. Branches that form a dense, robust foliage mass. It’s silhouette makes a noticeable mark on the horizon. What does this tree look like in your mind?

Now factor in the elements, seasonal change, and how its surroundings change. Maybe one day the dense forest is cleared away and the oak is one of the few remaining. How does oak #1 change? Maybe one day the cow pasture is forfeited, and the land becomes overgrown. How does oak #2 change?

What scale are we trying to achieve and is it going to be believable?

Well now let us change gears a little. It is time for a little math using scale and ratios.

This is not going to be complicated, in fact this makes everything that much easier. What we are talking about is scales such as 1:1, 1:2, 1:3, 1:4, 1:8, 1:16, and so on and so forth. The most used in bonsai are 1:8 and 1:16. For example with 1:8, the height of the tree, nebari to apex, is 8 times of the visual thickness of the trunk base.

Trunk base is going to be not the entire spread of the nebari but the thickness of the trunk right above it. As you can tell there is a lot of play in the ratio. 1:8 and 1:16 are preferred by most bonsai professionals because it presents a natural feel to the tree.

We can play with the ratio and push for more exaggerated scales – within reason. These ratios are all based off perspective and this is how we visualize ourselves viewing the tree. Bonsai is a forced perspective and the reason why a lot of trees are designed with large bases that taper to finer branches is to makes us believe that we are standing underneath the tree. This sense of perspective gives the feeling of power and stability. The taper in the trunk up to the apex normally forms a triangle shape. The triangle has always been the most stable shape in art. It stands on a flat base with two opposing side pushing against each other.

Do not lean too heavily on this triangle shape. The foliage mass can have a triangular shape to build on top of the trunk line, but the overall shape of the tree should not look like a Christmas tree. Remember the discussion about deciduous forms vs coniferous forms.

Looking back to the scales: the lower the scale the closer we are standing to the tree. It is as if we are holding the tree and leaning it back to peer up into the branching. This foreshortens the tree’s form and compresses the size and shape of the design.


Once we can answer all the core questions with an educated approach can we make, not just good bonsai, but great bonsai. We can make better bonsai that can speak for itself. A good bonsai looks like a dwarfed tree.

A great bonsai – a great bonsai tricks the viewer into believing it is a tree captured in miniature. A great bonsai emotes without sound or movement but with great stillness. A great bonsai does not have to be big as far as actual measurable height and size. When we view a great bonsai, all the core questions have been answered and we can not see the hands of the creator. We just see the tree.