Bonsai workshop planned for garden tour
April 14, 2005
Victoria County Master Gardener Intern

Tickets are now on sale for the Annual Garden Tour scheduled for Saturday, April 30 and Sunday, May 1. New to the tour this year are two educational workshops at 5 p.m. on both days. One is on bonsai while the other is on container gardening; both are sponsored by Gaye Gilster Lee and require a $10 advance reservation that may be paid at the time tour tickets are purchased.

Look for fliers and billboards for these ticket outlet locations:

Earthworks Nursery, corner of Main & Airline.

The Foliage Shoppe, 3304 Sam Houston.

Four Seasons Garden Center, 1209 E. Salem Road

McAdams Floral, 1107 E. Red River.

Renken's Nursery, Loop 463 & Salem Road.

Conducting the bonsai workshop will be garden tour homeowner David Edwards, who has mastered the art of training various plants to look like miniature trees. Educational materials will be provided with display of various examples of bonsai like those shown in the photographs accompanying this article.

So, what is bonsai? Most people know that a bonsai is probably a small tree or shrub in a pot, but the art and meaning of bonsai go so much further than that. The word "bonsai" (pronounced "bone sigh") has a general meaning of "plant in tray," a humble term indeed for a method of gardening that is both an art form and, at times, a spiritual endeavor. It is, in fact, more than just a little tree.

Bonsai trees are not dwarf specimens, nor are they kept small by freakish or harmful horticulture. Bonsai are normal, healthy trees grown in such a way that they appear to be miniature versions of their normal-sized cousins. They can live as long, if not longer, than their full-size relatives. Bonsai are created and kept in miniature by a long-term process of wiring branches and trunk, pinching off new growth, root pruning and repotting. A key to bonsai is scale - a bonsai's proportions should be perfectly harmonious, as if one were looking at a normal tree from far away. Great care is taken over time to produce the impression of great age, of natural weathering by wind and water. In short, bonsai is an effortful miniature replication of the perfection of nature.

The roots of bonsai are in the China of 10 centuries ago, but the art form was fully developed in Japan. For centuries, Japanese aesthetics have focused on the beauty, harmony and expressiveness of forms created by nature. The curves of a natural sand dune, produced only by wind, or the smoothness of sea-borne pebbles, for instance, represent perfection of a kind human endeavor cannot easily approach.

Shinto, the native religion of Japan, has as its heart the relationship between humans and nature, each in vulnerable co-existence with the other. Love of nature is a sacred principle, and many natural features such as waterfalls, mountains, and stone forms are marked with shrines. Spiritual practice in both Shinto and Buddhism often involve contemplating the serenity and perfection of timeless natural forms. Doing so can be difficult in a country as small as Japan (which is a little smaller than California), where only about 34 percent of the landmass is amenable to either agriculture or town life. Most of Japan's 123 million people must live in close quarters indeed. In a city like Tokyo or Osaka, it may be near impossible to have a yard, much less to have ready access to nature. Bonsai can provide the opportunity for contemplation of nature's meaning and perfection at home, even in the crowded city.

The process of making bonsai is traditionally governed, as are other Japanese art forms such as ikebana (flower arranging) and sumi-e (ink painting), by a number of general rules, and by rigorous training. This attention to detail begins with the selection of the plant. Bonsai can be started from seedlings, cuttings or small trees. Trees with small adult leaves are most appropriate, as large foliage can spoil the proportions of a bonsai. The tree should be of a species appropriate for the desired setting, whether full sun, partial shade or full shade. (Bonsai are typically, although not always, kept outside.) The selection of the plant is also determined to some extent by the form of bonsai one desires. Chokkan is the formal upright style, requiring a seedling that is straight, for example. Kengai, a cascading form, simulates a tree growing downward, as over the lip of a cliff, and would require a seedling with a trunk amenable to that design. Fukinagashi, a windswept style, might be best achieved by starting with a slanted trunk.

A number of other features should be considered when choosing a plant for bonsai. Regardless of selected form, the tree's trunk should be nicely shaped, with good taper. Ideally, the tree should have roots that are visible as they come out of the tree, flaring away into the soil. This provides a pleasing anchor and "grounds" the tree, avoiding the appearance of a bare stick emerging from the soil.

The ultimate shape of any bonsai depends on the chosen style as well as the specific attributes of the plant, but there are some general guidelines. A single leader is better for a bonsai than a tree with multiple leaders, although groups of trees in a single pot or tray can also be very pleasing.

Ideally, a bonsai will have open space between its branches, much like a full-size tree will. Branches at the bottom of the tree should be larger, and those higher up should be gradually smaller. Space between the branches should grow smaller as the branches near the tree's top. Areas of dead wood on the trunk are often desirable, because they give the impression of age, a most attractive characteristic in bonsai. Once the seedling, cutting, or tree has been selected, the long process of training can begin. A pleasing shape, keeping in mind the goals of proportion, beauty, and age, is obtained through a number of techniques.

Branches may be wired into place until they grow into the desired form. Treetops can be pruned to keep growth low. Roots are often pruned to encourage the growth of many feeder roots rather than just a few larger roots.

Perhaps the most important skill for successful bonsai growing is patience.

Bonsai cannot be grown in a day, or even in a year. The slow, careful work of a bonsai grower yields its most satisfying rewards in the long run - not just a healthy and beautiful plant, but an artistic recreation of nature in miniature, a true expression of the interdependent relationship between humans and the natural world.

Come learn about this ancient art at Kathleen and David Edwards' home the weekend of the Annual Garden Tour.