Bonsai: Yes you can
The art of shape, proportion, scale, and harmony
Story By MELISSA ADLER | Photos By DAVID FILBECK
Michelangelo once said, "Every Juniper has a bonsai inside of it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it." Maybe that’s a misquote, but the idea of looking at something ordinary and visualizing a masterpiece is what artists do, whether it’s a block of stone or a seedling.
Michelangelo used a chisel to create statues. Gardeners create bonsai using chopsticks, which according to Nola Ford, are the most important tools in preparing a tree to be potted. "Chopsticks are good for so many things," she tells a class of bonsai newbies at the Springfield-Greene County Botanical Center. "Use them to clear away soil from the roots, mark the front of your tree, and roll out tiny leaves. Ford, who owns Bonsai Creations in Clever, MO, explains that choosing the front of a tree is about a pleasing flow, an openness that you can look into. "Don’t have a branch coming right at you." Every tree has a good side. Just as you turn your Christmas tree before it gets covered in lights, turn your Juniper to look for shape and form. Then the sculpting can begin.
Bonsai is an art that began in ancient China. It was known as pun-sai, the special technique of growing miniature trees in shallow containers. Once bonsai (pronounced bone-sigh) was introduced into Japan, the art was redefined to represent the harmony between man, the soul and nature. The word bonsai means plant in a tray. Today, bonsai is a worldwide interest — the art of shape, proportion, scale, and harmony. Bonsai may live to be hundreds of years old, and the appearance of old age is much prized.
Juniper is often associated with bonsai, but any tree can be used. Ozark native trees such as elms and soft maples are wonderful, and sometimes volunteer in your yard or alongside the road. But be careful, says Ford, because this practice of rescuing volunteers can be addictive. "I notice a tree on the side of the road, and see its potential." She also warns about choosing carefully, as she once selected some great twisty vines which turned out to be poison ivy. She discovered that even in winter, its effects on the skin are the same.
Bonsai trees are not genetically bred or dwarfed to be miniature. Their small stature is obtained by the size of the container and trimming. Select a tree that got its start in the ground outside. Don’t choose a tree that’s too small and then put it in a bonsai pot, because once you do, you restrict its growth.
Once you’ve found the perfect block of stone, or in this case, tree, the first step is to use those chopsticks to clear away soil from the roots and expose as much trunk as possible. Springfield resident Fabio Heredia has loved bonsai for years but never took a class. He discovered that his Juniper was actually two plants. Not knowing what to do, he waited for Ford’s instruction. She suggested keeping the trees together for a twin trunk style. Heredia’s wife, Gayle, took notes as her husband chipped away at the dirt. Gayle said, "We buy bonsai because we love them. Fabio jumped in and said, "and then we kill ’em." A really long root system should be trimmed, but don’t lose roots unless necessary. And always balance losing roots with pruning tops.
As the students pruned with butterfly branch cutters, a room full of Juniper quickly transformed into a room full of bonsai trees. When trimming, they were told, follow the natural shape of the tree. Sue Pierce, also of Springfield, carefully cut small branches, each time pausing to judge the results. "I’m so afraid of cutting too much." Pierce gave her son a bonsai tree for Christmas, but she didn’t sculpt it in two hours. "I would trim a little, look at it, decide what I should cut next." Jerry O’Quinn, owner of O’Quinn’s Orchids & Water in Springfield, came over to Pierce’s tree and began to quickly and unceremoniously pinch off the ends of the branches. Pierce froze. O’Quinn explained that you want it to look like a cloud, with the leaves as close to the main branch as possible. Was Pierce nervous when he started pulling off tips? "Well, I’m sure he’s done many, so that’s why I’m here … to learn." (That’s a yes.)
The class did have a couple ringers. Miles Park, of the Springfield-Greene County Park Board, was asked to talk about a Japanese maple that he raised from seed in the ground. "I’ve probably killed more seedlings, but that’s all part of learning." Park has more than 60 bonsai at his home. Alan Hale, of Friends of the Garden, has been raising bonsai for 7-8 years. He uses "junk plants that people pull out." He’s had some successes, and a few setbacks as well. Hale lost plants when he moved, and when he went on vacation. "The person I asked to water while I was gone …" His voice trails off.
Preparing the pots included placing a screen on the bottom and threading wire through side holes. The wire, aluminum with a copper coating, can be used for training the tree. In this case, it was also used to hold the root balls in place. The wire can, and should be, removed after tree branches follow the desired shape. This may take a couple months. Loosely twist the wire around the branch and move it where you want it. Remember, however, that every time you move a branch, you break capillaries inside the branch. If you bend it one direction, and then the other, you’ve got a dead branch. Check it regularly so the branches don’t grow into the wire. You can also use a string tied to a rock to weight a branch down.
Each class participant covered their screens with gravel and layered with a potting soil and clay mixture, which keeps the soil moist. Foro advised to cover surface root with moss. The number one sin of bonsai gardeners is forgetting to water frequently. There’s a greater ratio of roots to soil, and the tree or shrub can’t hold as much moisture. Ford also reminded the class that if you see your species of tree growing outside, then it’s an outdoor tree, and needs to be outside. Bring the bonsai inside for short periods of time only. There are some varieties of plants that do well indoors, such as ficus, aralia, azalea norfolk pine, serissa, gardenia, or boxwood. As the class finished up, Ford had these final words of advice: Fertilize your bonsai, but don’t kill it with kindness. Use one half strength.
A bonsai tree will constantly re-shoot, so maintaining its shape is an ongoing labor of love. The careful pruning and patient pampering can be therapeutic. People with small yards or limited mobility find that raising bonsai is a way to garden without the space or heavy lifting. There are a few hard and fast rules you need to follow to successfully grow a bonsai. But the beauty of your tree is limited only by your imagination and the skillful use of chopsticks.
Spirit of the Trees
‘Each tree is unique and has its own personality.’ – Miles Park
The trees growing in Miles Park’s backyard are lush, majestic, and all stand less than two feet tall. Bonsai with names like Korean Hornbeam and Zelkova are thriving under the care of Park, who also oversees 3,200 acres of recreation space.
As Assistant Director of the Springfield-Greene County Park Board, he’s responsible for parks, sport complexes, aquatic and golf facilities, and trails. He’s been with the park board for 10 years, but his fascination with bonsai started decades earlier.
Park says tending to his bonsai is a great stress reliever. He has more than 60 trees in all, including two Trident maples that are 30 years old. A landscape architect, Park takes great pride in showing Japanese maples he grew from seed. He keeps some maples in the ground, periodically digging them up and trimming the roots to keep the trees small.
Raising bonsai is a good activity for couples and families, but Park cautions it’s not a hobby for the impatient. The Korean Hornbeam, for example, grew in the ground for 12 years before Park transferred them into pots.
He will gladly tell you about the trees he grows. Park explains that the Korean Hornbeam produces tough wood, used years ago to make wagon wheels. "The Zelkova grows a good trunk relatively quickly and is pretty easy to work with," says Park. He loves to talk about how the sun highlights the beautiful red stems of the Coral Bark Japanese maple. "Each tree is unique and has its own personality."
Since all his trees are deciduous, winter reveals interesting branch structures that are not as easy to see when leaves are present. The trees fair well through winter. Park sinks the pots into the ground and covers with mulch. Eventually Park plans to extend his patio and make pedestals to display the trees. He has other plans for his bonsai, too. "God reveals himself in nature," says Park. In the future, he hopes to use the trees to teach others about his faith.