I want to enthusiastically recommend Michael Hagedorn’s new book, “Bonsai Heresy.” It is an absolute must-read, full of incredibly valuable, useful information for all bonsai practitioners.
Michael Hagedorn is one of America’s most experienced bonsai professionals, having trained for years with Boon Manakitivipart in America, then more years with Shinji Suzuki in Japan, and now maintaining his own bonsai garden in Portland. Hagedorn studied ceramic sculpture in university, and is the son of a scientist. He fuses these artistic and scientific influences in his bonsai craft, always exploring, pushing the boundaries of technique and aesthetics. And he does so always with a smile, and a wry sense of humor.
One of my earliest exposures to his approach to bonsai was while viewing the trees of the Artisans Cup. His vine maple really stood out from the crowd. It was “potted” in a custom-built structure made of nylon, packed around with sphagnum and various mosses, then wrapped in cheese cloth (through which the mosses eventually sprouted). In his audio critique of the tree, Walter Pall remarked, “The problem with this sort of tree… if you want to win an award, you don’t bring something like that. You must bring a powerful tree, nowadays. But it’s not all about winning awards. I love it.”
Hagedorn’s Vine Maple (From the Artisans Cup)
Pall’s sentiment beautifully encapsulates Hagedorn’s approach, and the message he communicates in his new book, “Bonsai Heresy.” Tradition, and deep-seated preferences based upon tradition, dominate the bonsai world, and for good reason. Tradition gives us all a place to start; a broad understanding of what our forebears worked so hard to discover is a mandatory foundation for beginning one’s own bonsai journey. However, once this foundation is established, we need to be free to explore our own aesthetic sensibilities and push the existing bounds of technique. This is how art advances. From the book:
Though it can be liberating and fun to claim neophyte status, we in the West can no longer do so. We are well past the introduction stage in bonsai, that is decades gone, and maturity in any art means growing beyond beginnings.
I am relatively new to bonsai, having picked it up only in early 2020. But I was hooked from day one and it’s become clear to me this will be a life-long passion. I’ve already absorbed hundred of hours of Mirai streams, have read a half-dozen books cover-to-cover, and have begun my own little garden. For every video I watch or book I read, a handful of nebulous questions begin floating around in my mind, questions along the lines of:
Why do bonsai practitioners, even professionals, strongly disagree on the subject of akadama?
Is it okay to re-pot in the fall? Or should this only be done in spring? Is the answer species-dependent?
What do “too big” and “too small” mean with regards to pot choices? Aesthetic considerations aside what are the functional, horticultural consequences of using a very large or very small container?
After finding all the information in other bonsai “encyclopedias” to contain nearly-identical information from one to the next, every single chapter in “Bonsai Heresy” was eye-opening (some remarkably so)!
To touch on just one of the questions above - Hagedorn’s chapters discussing akadama were particularly illuminating for me. As a new bonsai practitioner, I’d found myself torn - Ryan Neil is a massive proponent of akadama, as is Boon Manakitivipart. They swear by its ability to promote ramification and scaling of healthy root systems. Yet I’ve also heard that akadama can break down into a dense, solid clay, potentially drowning/suffocating roots and killing plants. Hagedorn uses his experience to cut through all the confusion:
… As many of us are aware, when in a bonsai pot, akadama tends to break down… This is a common complaint about akadama, and the common conclusion is that because of this, it’s useless stuff and should be avoided. The first part of this sentence is correct, it does break down. The second part of that sentence is bollocks and completely misinterprets one of the main benefits of akadama… In a dense old broken-down akadama root ball, we see fine root growth. This translates to finer shoot growth…
… I hope every serious bonsai enthusiast gets a chance to at least see an old akadama root ball [in Japan]. After removing it from its pot, one of the most noticeable things is its density. In that interior core, if it’s been there a decade or more, the individual balls of akadama have completely broken down, and what’s left is a dense mass of uniform soil, assisted by the lung-like aeration of pumice or lava…
… Surprisingly, on closer inspection that entire dense core mass is also chock full of tiny feeder roots - healthy, growing feeder roots. And that might be shocking, as it was for me when I first saw it. For why would roots grow in something so dense? Yet they do… The eventual breakdown of akadama and the fine root growth it supports appears directly related to the fine ramification of a tree’s shoots. If you’ve ever been to a show in Japan or seen a Kokufu show book and wondered at the fine ramification that appears on bonsai everywhere, this is the reason. Fine roots in old root balls." (My emphasis.)
The entire book is full of similarly enlightening tidbits of bonsai wisdom.
“Bonsai Heresy” is split up into “Technical” and “Aesthetic” sections, with the former taking up the first two-thirds of the book, and the latter the final third. I personally found the “technical” chapters to be the most rewarding. After the points regarding akadama, another chapter I found fascinating discussed the idea that hardiness zones are not an end-all-be-all consideration in raising bonsai, as these zones refer to the hardiness of the top parts of trees, not the roots. In bonsai containers, our trees’ roots are exposed to far greater extremes of temperature than they’d ever experience underground, as non-bonsai trees. In this respect, we in the bonsai world need to be far more aware of the sensitivity of a particular species’ roots than someone just looking for some pretty backyard plants.
The aesthetic chapters were all worthwhile, but were uniform in their approach of encouraging the reader to, simply, question tradition. Why should we want to avoid bar branches? Are there situations where bar branches are acceptable, perhaps even desirable? What about pocket branches, pigeon breasts, and inverse taper? Hagedorn consistently hammers home the idea that, without thoughtful examination of these traditional bonsai “rules,” there can be no understanding, much less progress.
Alongside all this precious information are gorgeous, fun, vivid illustrations (Hagedorn chose the illustrator specifically to make images that break the mold of zen bonsai calm). And Hagedorn’s wit helps enliven the sometimes dense, technical chapters.
All told, this is hands-down the most valuable book I’ve encountered so far on my own bonsai journey. I give it my highest possible recommendation.