Why most UK Bonsai Clubs are struggling for members? + Poll

I started in bonsai over 25 years ago; as with so many it grew out of curiosity, visits to Flower shows and I guess Karate Kid fired my imagination. Back in those early years the only information was from books and if you were lucky a local bonsai club or society.

The majority of clubs were made up of long standing members with a few ‘young bucks’ eager to learn from the wiser and more experienced amongst its members. My first visit to my local club happened to be the Annual General Meeting and one of the items on the Agenda was ‘Membership’ and more importantly how to encourage new members. I was asked “as a new visitor… what should the society do?” My answer though rather naïve was “keep creating beautiful bonsai, just like those brought along tonight by the members”

We had no visiting speakers as many members had years of experience under their belt, we had an annual show that was open to the public and it was a ‘success’ My formative years in that club were happy, happy in ignorance as I adhered to the club adage that all you need to know was right here at your club and the trees you were fashioning were exactly what Bonsai was.

All that changed when in 1991 the BCI World Conference came to Birmingham UK, with guest speakers, workshops, a huge exhibition and many bonsai traders. At the next meeting I proposed that we organise a club trip to the event. After a show of hands NOT ONE PERSON wanted to go as it was considered too far (90 miles) and too expensive (£12.00) this was a defining moment for me, the best in the world were coming to our doorstep and at a stupid cheap price and we were NOT attending?

I made my own way along to the BIG event with fellow club member Terry Foster and one old timer who came along because I was happy to drive and what ‘harm’ could it do. Let’s just say that when I returned home I gave away all the crap in my garden and started again… I had wasted at least 7 years working on material that would NEVER amount to anything and without any style whatsoever!

That was over 20 years ago and I am sad to say that attitude still prevails in some clubs. I attended a ‘club’ show at Capel Manor near London… (ONE of the Few clubs that are actually making a difference to their members) and entered into conversation with a friend from London and enquired as to how many of HIS fellow members were in attendance. “NONE” was his reply! … “Too far… 20 miles too far”

I can count on one hand how many ‘Bonsai’ Clubs in the UK actually do ‘Bonsai’ and NOT simply promote planting trees in pots, keeping them healthy and calling them Bonsai. I understand that the social part of ‘being in a club’ is important, but not at the expense of ‘clipping the wings’ of those wanting more. The attitude of “Our club has been going for xxx years so we know more than that young upstart” And… “Why pay for a teacher when we know it all already” is a case of the blind leading the blind, stifling creativity and holds back those who wish to excel.

There is NO SUBSTITUTE to going to a exhibition of top class trees, no books, web site or video can compare with standing in front of a majestic living bonsai… having the ability to get up close and personal, to discuss with fellow enthusiasts and to delight in the wonder.

The Internet is NOT the answer however it goes a long way to helping understand the fundamentals, share Ideas, and learn techniques. There is NO SUBSTITUTE for working in three dimensions on a living tree, understanding its unique traits, horticultural requirements particular to your location and actually sharing ideas. It’s no wonder that those who wish to excel or simply create good bonsai leave clubs and seek out, like minded individuals, teachers and workshops beyond their locale.

20 comments on “Why most UK Bonsai Clubs are struggling for members? + Poll

  1. Hello.
    Wow,Fantastic article,it’s so helpful to me,and your blog is very good,I’ve learned a lot from your blog here,Keep on going,my friend,I will keep an eye on it,One more thing,thanks for your post!


  2. Oh my God, I´m a beginner…I have been a club member for the last 8 month, and I have almost the same feeling as you pointed :-). I was told that our club exist for 26 years, but nobody can show me how to wire a branch…Of course, there are other ways how to learn bonsai, but it is a shame that a local club is one of the last of them…
    Thanks for nice post. Greetings from Slovakia, Rasto


  3. Hi Tony, you know where I’m at re Clubs mate BUT at ours I do see a wave of change for the better. We actively invite good, respected and grounded teachers/speakers to ours and the results are beginning to show – just look at Jose! There are still plenty of the “tea & biscuits” brigade but thanks to the like of Andy P and Les S I think that we, as a Club, are making headway. Don’t get me wrong I don’t think that we will ever replicate what the Wirral Club has done but we are getting our Club trees into recognized Shows, and its not all “out work”.

    Great subject matter mate (as usual) and I hope that when I take a backseat our Club will be in a better shape than before I got actively involved. It’s there already but I’d like to see it go onto the next level. Call it arrogance on my part if you will but our hobby needs a stronger sense of direction at grass roots level and I’d like to be able to pass on what people like yourself have “gifted” to me over the years.


  4. Pingback: Getting Told Off. | Bonsai-Passion

  5. Great article Tony very well put, I have been a member andpresident of 3 of the 4 clubs over the years owing to shifting around and have found the same in most, now national president and International Consultant for WBFF you only get out of any organisation what you are prepared to put in, if you search for knowledge you will learn but most people won’t do that.
    And that is why most members trees are just trees in pots.
    The old saying seek on you will find, and you can do any thing if you want it enough
    Just my thoughts and frustrations


    • It is inevitable that within a club a few ‘hard core’ do most of the work and the rest tag along. If that hard core have the ‘right’ attitude then the club will create an atmosphere or learning and sharing.
      There is nothing wrong with ‘spin outs’ from clubs in the form of informal study groups. I know of 3 such groups within clubs in the UK. What they do and know is that they all want to go the extra mile and learn more.

      With a study group (usually under 6 persons) it’s easier to handle, a club can be unwieldy. Imagine a Study Group as a speed boat, and the Club as a cruise ship. The speed boat is fast, can change direction quickly and can get to its destination without too much trouble. On the cruise ship everyone is having a good time but it does not turn easily and it gets into port usually with the help of small ‘pilot’ speed boats.

      I have seen it so many times whereby the study group ‘proposes’ something to the club, say a visit to a show, invite a particular speaker or have a trip away, they are considered ‘elitist’ however if that group is in the driving seat by being on the Club committee as they are at The Wirral, see the results and level of membership they achieve.

      I really enjoy my visits to clubs, at some the atmosphere and excitement is tangible, at others it is a case of “have you bought your raffle tickets?” I love the social side, meeting folk, chatting, sharing and often lots of laughter. For some it’s a welcome night out, a time to meet friends and catch up, for others they want more, they should not be held back but encouraged to grow and if nurtured will stay within the club.


  6. The closest here to a club is a bunch of friends who meet occasonlly in a garden centre. Tryed to meet and get conversation once but the receptivity was too weak.

    So the closes’t to what you refer in your text as doing real bonsai was last year when I had the chance to exchange a few words with a very nice guy named Tony Tickle in Ericeira, Portugal.

    So in my case internet (mainly foruns for the exange of experience) are very helpfull!


  7. Briliantly written Tony – you hit so many nails on the head as our national bonsai hobby at club level has its head so stuck in the sand . There are a few clubs doing well it seems in promoting bonsai to a much higher level – (unfortunately there isnt one within 100++ miles of my house). It frustrates me that those who realise what it means and takes to produce proper high quality trees get pigeon holed as elitest while the club majority bumble on basically in ignorance. Luckily there is a wave of individuals wanting more experience, more teaching and better material and I’m finding these small groups are breaking away from the old fashioned club network – unfortunately this is to the detriment of the original club as the experienced members are drawn away.

    I like the coffee and biscuits at our club ! haha, and the minority of members who are like me in wanting to do the best they can on a regional / national level give hope – but you dont need a whole hand to count them.


    • I would like to find out where these break away groups are. As a former club chairman and bonsai nurseryman I have seen this phenomenon first hand. I too went through an epiphany in 1991 at the BCI World Conference. I had to take a friend that wasn’t even interested in bonsai as I could not motivate any bonsai mates to go. Since then I have managed an award at national exhibition, not that anyone got to find out thanks to the ‘internal politics’ of the host club. They even prevented my trees being photographed by Bill Jorden for the magazine. Those that would like to progress and those that are happy to do very little… Unfortunately it is the latter that appear to have won here in the South-West. I have been banned from my local clubs for over 20 years and have never been given an explanation for why. I only ever wanted to learn more and teach others. Some have said that its because my work frightens other members, while others have mentioned they get embarrassed to put their trees alongside mine. The biggest reason seemed to me that if you went into the ‘bonsai business’ you would be considered a traitor to the bonsai cause. What cause?…keeping people in the dark. Either way my reputation lies in tatters as I was seen as someone who had to be got out of the way if the ‘cuppa and biscuit’ brigade were to carry on keeping people in the dark. I have of course continued on my own but it would be nice to get back among those that are as crazy as I am. How do you overcome the inherent fear of the unknown for these people. Sorry this was a bit personal but bonsai is my life and I feel that there is nothing worse than deliberate ignorance.


  8. Tony – my experience with my own club is similar to yours. I should add that I hope the results I attain in bonsai some day are also within some long-range striking distance of yours. So far, I am perhaps naive enough to keep working to change my club from within, encouraging the more experienced and knowledgeable members to remain engaged, to give lectures, and to display their trees, in the hopes that a few more people will notice the difference between the twigs and the topiary and the trees and will have an epiphany. The lack of participation or even attendance at our own club shows, however, is depressing, and I want to jump up and down on someone or something when we have the occasional “guess how little I paid for this twig” segment of our monthly meetings. I suppose I still feel a need to keep banging my head against the wall for a little while longer. I definitely understand when people who already have done so give up on it.


  9. Tony, I voted in your poll even though I’m not in the UK.My local club is perhaps one of the most active in Florida. Our keys, we are inclusive, open minded, striving to improve and do a lot for our localcommunity. On top of that we have all made lots of friends.


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