My idea for starting what was at that time the Steve Tolley Bonsai School, came about because I could see that there was a huge hole that needed to be filled to bridge the gap between what the UK bonsai clubs and societies could offer in terms of bonsai education and guidance, and what was actually achievable. Clubs and societies only take the bonsai enthusiast so far. They set people on the bonsai road, but they fail to take them on the full journey. There is an old saying that “you are only as good as the best guy in the club”. Well not every club in the UK has someone with the credentials of say Dan Barton or Peter Adams amongst their membership, people who they can turn to for that something extra. Initially for me, it was this gap that I thought I could fill, and continue from where the bonsai clubs and society’s ended. Today, what has now become the Steve Tolley ‘Bonsai Academy’, has developed to become so much more. People attend the academy on a monthly basis and under my guidance we take their trees through their development through the seasons. People can attend from 1-4 times per month dependant on their enthusiasm and available free time.


The academy provides a base foundation that enables attendees to build and accumulate skills and experience that helps them achieve their goals in bonsai. Through covering the different aspects of bonsai on their own and other attendees trees, they get a rounded learning experience. So over time they cover a breadth of topics e.g. correct wiring techniques, branch manipulation, repotting skills, bonsai design and aesthetics, collection and acclimation of material, pruning techniques, feeding regimes, tree refinement and presentation etc.

school 1

The academy is about in depth theory and hands on experience over the course of each year. I have always maintained that ‘hands on’ in conjunction with theory is the way forward. And this is particularly obvious for instance when defining live veins on junipers, or bending thick, strong or heavy branches, and of course for the basics like correct wiring techniques. The knowledge and skills that you pick up at the academy helps to make you a more rounded bonsai person.

If the attendees are also members of a club or society then they take back to their clubs this knowledge and this then filters down into their clubs indirectly thus raising the standard within the club/society and of course the standard of UK bonsai.

Big Darren

Because the people who attend the academy are not novices, the academy does not have a structured curriculum. By that I mean students do not learn wiring for a term, then re potting etc. I prefer to work with everybody as an individual. Everyone has areas where they are strong and where they are weak. And also people learn in different ways and of course at different speeds and as an educator I feel it is very important to be able to read the student and present your teaching and guidance in a way that can be understood and digested by you the individual. So when you attend the academy, we work together to help you reach your fullest potential. With this approach everyone has seen their skills and knowledge grow exponentially, and because of this, so has their confidence. Because of the academy, attendees want to go further with their bonsai, they can see there are no limits or boundaries anymore to bonsai. And this is something I have always strived to do myself. To keep pushing the envelope to see just what can be achieved both aesthetical and horticultural. That is what I find exciting. Our limits are only what we place on ourselves. “Reaching beyond the edge of ……end” My goal for the academy is to have trees emerging in the UK that would hold their own in the Kokofu Ten or Taikan Ten exhibitions, and to raise the standards in the world of bonsai. But first and foremost, to help people enjoy and get the most from their bonsai. Certainly in the case of the UK, the bonsai club/society scene is going through a tough spell. One of the problems for sure is that, the original reason these clubs were started in the first place was for the dissemination of information. In the 60’s and 70’s there was nothing out there. People needed somewhere to go to learn bonsai. However today with online videos, dvd’s, books and magazines being ever more popular and information being more accessible with the internet, the need to go to a club for information is now not so great for the beginner or intermediate hobbyist as it was. Unfortunately the internet forums are littered with bonsai masters and gurus. Many people now go to clubs to meet other like minded people to chat rather than to learn. They are more for a social get together. When you are in a club or society and you are passionate about bonsai and you want to progress to a higher level, often a club cannot provide this level of help or guidance, and this is where the bonsai professional comes in. Certainly in Italy and Spain for example, you can see how a nucleus of people working with a bonsai professional really works. Their results speak for themselves. This is where the Steve Tolley Bonsai Academy succeeds! If you want to learn and if you want to progress, the academy is for you. If you are looking for a teacher who will work with you the individual, the academy is for you. If you want your bonsai to know no limits, the academy is for you. If you are simply passionate about bonsai, the academy is for you! What are you waiting for, take the next step!