The Living Art of Bonsai

BY Jules Norwood

Clip here trim there let it grow. The art of bonsai is an ancient pastime though one that has only spread to the United States in the last half-century. For some it’s a meditative pursuit; for others a horticultural challenge. Literally bonsai is the practice of growing a tree in a tray or pot and a surprising number of Cape Fear enthusiasts have started their own collections tucked away in backyards throughout the region.

asian origins

The Chinese were the first to practice bonsai as we know it beginning around 1300 B.C. says Jon Wooten president of the Cape Fear Bonsai Society. “They went out into nature and found a tree that was inspiring — a tree that was growing out over a lake or on a mountainside — and they dug it up and transported it back so they could have it at their home.”

Between 400 and 800 A.D. as cultural exchange between the Japanese and Chinese began to increase the practice was adopted by the Japanese who developed many of the rules and techniques used in bonsai today. From Japan the fascination with miniaturized trees spread to Europe around 1900 and to the U.S. after World War II.

using the landscape

The idea is to create a planting that lets the viewer imagine another place a stout oak standing solitary in the English countryside or a craggy juniper struggling to survive on a rocky mountain peak.

A bonsai is not a specific species or kind of plant; practically any species of tree can be used to create a bonsai though there are certain characteristics that make some species more suitable than others like small leaves and woody trunks. The size and shape of the bonsai are controlled through a combination of pot confinement and pruning of the foliage and roots.

Bonsai are grown outdoors and Arthur Joura the curator of the bonsai collection at the N.C. Arboretum in Asheville believes that native species make the best material — they are accustomed to the climate and they reflect images that can be found in the local landscape.

“Arthur believes you can take just about any native plant and create a bonsai with it ” said Cape Fear Bonsai Society member Bill Tart. “You experiment with things … we can go out and buy exotic plants from other countries but I still enjoy working with what we have here.”

Plants common to North Carolina that are often used include junipers azaleas hornbeams and elms.

Landscaping junipers make the best subjects for beginners trying to learn. “You can go to Lowe’s and buy one put it in a cheap plastic pot and have a tree that only cost a few dollars ” Wooten says. “You don’t have to spend a fortune on it. It lets you learn how to properly put it in a pot; they’re fairly tolerant and they lend themselves to virtually every style. You can wire a limb without breaking it so it’s an excellent plant to learn on.” And then too you don’t feel really terrible when you break a $4 juniper.

a question of style

The first step is to choose a style for your tree. “You try to recreate that scene that inspired you ” Wooten says. “You want your tree to remind you of some memory some craggy thing you saw hanging off a mountain cliff or a tree you used to climb in as a kid.”

Some of the most common styles include upright which grows tall and straight; cascade which reaches downward over the edge of the pot; slanting which leans to one side; literati which is mostly bare except for a small amount of greenery at the uppermost extremity; and group which gives the impression of a forest or grove of trees.

“Work with the tree and do what the tree gives you ” adds club member Ken Nordstrom. “You can’t make things what they’re not.”

After choosing a style decide which branches will be a part of the design and which will be cut then shape the tree by pruning. Wire can also be used to bend branches into place.

There are general guidelines for branch placement but they can be interpreted loosely. For example the first branch usually appears about one-third of the way up the trunk while branches extending directly toward the viewer in the lower part of the tree should usually be avoided.

However Tart says “If you like it that’s all that matters.”

The next step is to repot the tree into a bonsai pot.

“Pull it out of the pot and rake the roots out ” Tart says. “A lot of people starting out are scared to cut the roots off but when you take foliage from the top you don’t need as many roots to support it.”

Secure the plant in the pot with wire then fill the pot with a free-draining soil mix working soil into the roots with a chopstick or dowel.

“For the first two or three weeks you want intermittent sun — and water it every day ” Wooten cautions. “When you start seeing new growth you can start easing it back out into the sunshine and fertilize it.”

getting started

Bonsai trees and supplies can be found locally at The Painted Lady Bonsai at the intersection of Market and 23rd streets and at the Transplanted Garden on 16th Street.

The best way to learn more Wooten says is to talk with more experienced bonsai growers. “Join the Cape Fear Bonsai Society ” he advises.

There is also a wealth of information available on the Internet and a variety of books that can be helpful to beginners and experts alike.

“It’s not complicated ” Tart says. “You don’t need to be a horticulturalist or a botanist to figure it out.”

There are however a few mistakes and misconceptions to avoid. “They are not houseplants ” Wooten emphasizes. “The biggest mistake people make is to go to Lowe’s or Wal-Mart and see a cute little plant buy it and stick it on the coffee table — and a month later it’s dead as a doornail.”

Bonsai need sunlight and the indoor environment even in a window is too dark and dry for long-term survival. “The only trees that need to come indoors at all are tropicals — ficus and schefflera — in the wintertime ” Wooten says. “Below 45 degrees they need to come in. Other than that they stay outside.”

They also require watering usually daily and proper fertilization.

an appreciation for art

The Cape Fear Bonsai Society which was started in 2002 and has grown from a membership of six to more than 40 has already made a name for itself at the annual Bonsai Expo at the N.C. Arboretum. Last year the club took home the Curator’s Award for the Most Creative Display.

“We were extremely proud of that because we’re such a young club and the other exhibitors there have class trees and they’ve been around for a long time ” Wooten says. “For us to come around and win any kind of award was quite an honor.”

The Cape Fear Bonsai Society offers monthly demonstrations and participates in local garden shows and plant sales. Wooten and Tart have been involved in the club for about five years while Nordstrom got hooked at a bonsai demonstration about two years ago. The trio says that interest in the club has grown and that there are also quite a few Cape Fear residents outside the club who have their own collections.

For anyone who has an artistic eye and an appreciation of nature and living growing things it’s a natural fit.

“I think you have to have an appreciation for art and for seeing something alive and growing living ” says Tart. “You get a very close association between you and the plant. You look at it when it’s turned out the way you want it and there’s your satisfaction. It’s alive it’s healthy and it’s the style you thought it should be. That’s when you sit down and just plain enjoy looking at it. It’s a growing living art form and you did it — you and Mother Nature.”