The Tragic Story of My First Bonsai

This is what I thought I was buying when I sent for a bonsai kit.

I’ve always been naive. My naivety started in my childhood and persists today. I simply seem unable to believe that all people aren’t good and that all advertisements don’t tell the absolute truth. Over the years I’ve been scammed over and over again by advertisements that promised more than they delivered. To be honest, most of these had nothing to do with gardening, but rather sea monkeys, nonstick frying pans, and weight loss products. A few did turn up in the gardening world, though. In fact, naively believing an ad about a bonsai kit actually lead to my first introduction to growing bonsai.

Here’s the story:

Ripped Off by a Bonsai Ad

True bonsais don’t come in boxes.

I was perhaps 13 or 14 years old when this happened. In one of my father’s gardening magazines, I’d seen an ad offering a bonsai kit at a very attractive price: only a few dollars, if I remember correctly. Since I had a summer job and finally a bit of spending money, I found the ad irresistible.

I had not yet grasped the concept that you usually get what you pay for. Although I had never, at this point in my life, actually seen a real bonsai, I’d seen photos of them and was really impressed. I imagined that I was going to receive a beautiful bonsai already formed at a bargain price. How could any plant-nut kid resist such a temptation!

So I placed the order and the package arrived soon enough. I was so excited when my mom said a package had come for me that I almost danced for joy!

By now you’ve probably guessed that what was inside was not the living bonsai I was expecting, but rather a bonsai pot (actually a cheap plastic imitation of a bonsai pot), a small bag of potting soil and pack of 5 conifer seeds. I was so disappointed I felt like crying!

I did try sowing my bonsai seeds… with no luck.

Of course, curiosity eventually overcame my disappointment. Okay, I hadn’t received a bonsai plant, but I did have bonsai seeds (I suspect that, at that time, I thought bonsais were a specific kind of plant that naturally took on a bonsai form)! So I sowed the seeds, using the pot and soil provided, and waited. One month went by, then two, then three: nothing ever germinated. Today, I suspect that giving the seeds a cold treatment might well have stimulated their germination, but the meager instructions accompanying the kit made no mention of it.

So my first try with bonsais was a bust.

Going Further with Bonsai

20161220eI didn’t give up after that one bad experience, though. A few years later, I started studying bonsai more seriously and read a few books on the subject. Now knowing more about what I had to do, I bought my first pre-bonsais (young rooted plants) and began to train them in what I hoped was true bonsai fashion. I actually had some success and I even won a few ribbons for them in a local garden club show.

I soon realized, however, that the art of bonsai was not for me. This technique requires almost daily care, yet I began a job not much later where I had to travel fairly frequently. And my ex-wife was not a trustworthy bonsai sitter.

I ended up selling my bonsais to a collector and redirected my horticultural interests into more readily maintainable plants and techniques: houseplants in pots that can actually hold a few days-worth of water, balcony gardening, community gardening, etc. To this day, there isn’t much in the gardening world that I don’t do… except bonsai and topiary.

And that’s fine. I freely admit that bonsai simply isn’t for me: I find maintaining them too fastidious and time-consuming. That’s not to say that I don’t find them attractive, even seductive, but I no longer feel I have to own a bonsai myself. I’m perfectly happy to visit bonsai shows and displays and admire the work of others.

The Same Rip-Off Still Exists

Bonsai in a box: good luck with that!

Would you believe that the same scam still exists 40 years later? That is “bonsai kits” that contain seeds rather than plants? Sometimes this is spelled out in the advertisement or the box is labelled “bonsai starting kit”, but I still consider this a scam, as I’m sure none of the seeds included with such kits ever actually become bonsais. And you never see a mention in the ad or on the package that it will easily take 10 to 20 years to turn the seed offered into a true bonsai. In fact, even germinating the seeds offered and maintaining the seedlings more than a few months is beyond the scope of the type of beginning gardener likely to buy such a kit.

If you’re seriously interested in bonsai, starting all on your own with a pack of seeds is simply not the way to go. If bonsai really interests you, begin instead by reading a book on the subject, attending a lecture, signing up for a course or becoming a member of a local bonsai association. And begin with a plant or a cutting, not a seed. That’s how to become a successful bonsai hobbyist.

Gardeners are Generally Honest

If ever you’ve been taken in by a gardening ad that did not deliver the goods promised, remember that’s more the exception than the rule. In the gardening world, you mostly do get what you pay for.

I’ve been gardening for over 50 years now and have placed hundreds of orders. 98% delivered the merchandise in an appropriate manner and the few that didn’t readily reimbursed me or replaced the faulty merchandise. I really only feel I’ve been scammed 2 or 3 times… and always in a situation where I should have suspected there was something wrong, since when the price seems too good to be true, it usually is!

Take it from me: the gardening world is mostly filled with honest people.

Of course, did’t I warn you at the beginning of this article that I tend to be a bit naive?20161220c

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

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