©1989 judywhite. All Rights Reserved. This article first appeared
in Garden State Home and Garden Magazine, Dec 1989.
January 2009, used with the permission of Bob Furnback.
The Timeless Art of Bonsai
There may be more ancient horticultural pursuits than the art of
bonsai, but not many. Bonsai is the technique of training trees to
grow in small pots, dwarfing and diminutizing them to create
miniature versions of nature. And in so doing, technique is
transformed into art. In the hands of a master, bonsai becomes great
art, timeless, subtly changing and evolving, weaving beauty with
reflective quality. For bonsai is not merely a little tree. It is
vision, the ability to see what could be, artistically translated
into a three-dimensional, four-season echo of the natural world.
Bonsai comes from two Chinese words that quite literally mean
"tray grow," or potted tree. The Chinese claim the origination of
the practice, but it was the Japanese who really laid seige to the
concept and turned it into their own, even adopting the same word
into their language. The Japanese hold bonsai such a high art
because rather than feeling nature to be diminished by
miniaturization, they consider it much more intensified, a
crystalization process that holds within it the grace and beauty and
mystery of life itself.
Specially defined shapes each with their own name. "The Japanese are
so stylish with bonsai," says Bob Furnback, founding President of the
Deep Cut Bonsai Society in Middletown, New Jersey. "They've been
doing it for 800 years. We're sort of developing our own American
style, following the basic rules of the Japanese." Besides the
general leeway in adapting rules, the essential difference between
Japanese bonsai and Western versions, says Furnback, are in the
plants available as subjects. He and his wife Jean are strong
proponents of using native New Jersey trees in their own bonsai
creations, and a good percentage of the trees they have used in their
sixty-odd bonsai collection have been seedlings or dwarfed trees
found right here in the state, then trained to both shape and size.
"The trees are generally more prized if found in nature to begin
with," says Furnback, rather than those started from nursery grown
seedlings. The weathered quality of trees found outdoors lends
itself extremely well to the finished bonsai product. Exposed wood
that has been scarred or broken off in nature is a desired effect,
one that is often artificially induced by breaking off parts of
branches and applying lime sulfur, which turns the wood a weathered
silver gray or white. The sun also helps bleach the wood further.
"Pick trees that are not perfect," advises Furnback, "the ones
with branches missing and stunted growth. They make the best bonsai
subjects." This is true whether choosing plants found naturally or
ones in a nursery. Native New Jersey trees that make good bonsai are
the Eastern white cedar, found in many areas of south Jersey. Swamp
maple also works well, and grows almost anywhere in the state, even
along roadways where they are constantly cut down by the road
departments. Eastern red cedars are particularly common in the shore
area. Pitch pines are good, but they are harder to find. As with
any collected plant material, however, potential bonsai subjects
should never be taken from protected areas or from properties without
the owner's permission. Good places to look for likely subjects are
on a slope or on a bare hill. Best season for finding native plants
is early spring, when new buds are beginning and roots are still
somewhat dormant and can be safely cut and dug up. A good root ball,
perhaps a third in diameter than the height of the tree, should come
with the plant. Bigger trees should be put in a big pot for a couple
of years, then transplanted to a smaller container, and then finally
into the bonsai pot itself, a training process that gradually root
prunes the plant, enabling the dwarfing process. Smaller plants,
says Furnback, can be put right away into bonsai pots, making a sort
of "instant bonsai."
Even native fruit trees such as apple and crabapple can become
bonsai. "In the dwarfing process you can change the size of the
leaves and roots of the apple," says Furnback, which can be done by
selective root pruning and leaf cutting, "but you can't change the
size of the fruit. To some, it may look grotesque, but to us, it is
Other types of trees not necessarily native to New Jersey that
lend themselves to bonsai include Alberta spruce, junipers, pine,
Hanoki cypress, Chinese elm, "in fact, almost anything that's woody,"
Furnback suggests. Plants can be started from seed as well as
purchased in various stages of growth, but there is no such thing as
"bonsai seed," even though some catalogs may advertise as such. No
plant will grow from a seed into a perfectly formed dwarfed bonsai.
Bonsai is an art, not a seed.
One of the easiest ways to start with bonsai is to purchase a
"finished" bonsai. "Finished" is a relative term, because a bonsai
tree is always growing, and therefore needs continual care and
pruning and repotting throughout its lifetime. Miniaturizing the
tree does not change its capacity for long life; some bonsai that
have been handed down from generation to generation are estimated to
be five to eight hundred years old. But a bonsai that is sold as
"finished" has captured its essential character, its training
basically complete. The vision has been created. The novice new
owner basically needs to learn how to keep it alive and trimmed to
its essential form, which is generally easier than trying to learn
how to visualize, select, pot, root- and branch- and leaf-prune,
twist, train and grow all at once.
"While almost everyone has a passing interest in bonsai, those
of us who have 'been to the mountain' know it is not a sport for
everyone. Most lose interest when they find out you can't keep them
on top of the television," writes Randy Clark, Vice President of the
National Bonsai Foundation, in the JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN BONSAI
SOCIETY. What kind of care do bonsai need? Most bonsai subjects are
temperate zone trees, those that need four seasons of cyclical
change, including winter in order to undergo their necessary dormant
season, just like trees do outdoors here. Just because they are in
pots does not eliminate their need for seasonal change. Temperate
zoned trees need a lot of sun, and by and large will spend the bulk
of their time during any part of the year outdoors. They can be
brought indoors for display, but for true growing, they want the
fresh air and sunlight found outdoors. As with any plant in a pot,
care must be taken to help them through the extremes of winter,
sheltered from hard cold. Actually, hardy bonsai can be exposed to
frost several times before being winter protected; this helps signal
the coming dormant season. The type of soil used in the bonsai pots
varies from person to person, "like spaghetti sauce recipes," says
Jean Furnback, which depend upon individual growing environments and
culture, but basically the mix includes gravel or coarse sand for
drainage, peat moss, and clay loam. Many, like Dr. Lou Nosher, an
admired New Jersey bonsai artist, recommend adding fine compost as
Lou and Pauline Nosher have been growing bonsai in New Jersey
since 1976, after they became inspired by the Japanese government's
fabulous bonsai collection gift to the United States, from which the
collection at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., was begun.
At one point the Noshers owned over 300 bonsai, some of which have
garnered awards at national bonsai symposia. Since retiring and
moving to the shore, their bonsai collection enjoy the waterfront
breezes on specially constructed tier display benches in summer,
while during winter they are placed, pots and all, into the ground
and protected with slatted fence and burlap windbreaks. One year a
robin even built her nest in the center of a prized bonsai forest
planting of Alberta spruce (which involved planting of several trees
in one pot together), a true testament to Dr. Nosher's replication of
nature. He is considered a master by many in New Jersey, including
Hardy bonsai are generally watered every day during the growing
season, between April and November, then given water perhaps only
three times during the winter months after frost. Some bonsai are at
their very finest in winter, especially some of the deciduous-leaved
types whose trunks are particularly beautiful by themselves. Jean
and Bob Furnback own a 25 year old Chinese Elm that is stunning any
time of the year, "but we almost hate to see leaves come on," says
Jean, because of the graceful beauty of the old trunk and intricate
branches best revealed in winter.
Because of their longeveity, bonsai become permanent members of
the family to devotees. The Furnbacks even have names for some of
their plants. One Eastern white cedar "was standing alone in the
middle of a swamp, like a ghost," remembers Jean. It is called,
simply, "The Ghost," a decided presence in their collection.
The genius of bonsai lies in a combination of plant material
selection, training the branches with wires if necessary, sometimes
the entwining of trunks, judicious pruning and trimming, and also
choice of pot in which to compose the landscape, for the bonsai is
always treated as an ensemble. Granted, some artistic vision is
necessary for the beginner, but mastering the techniques and craft
helps the novice create his own miniaturized view of nature. As in
the old joke, "How do I get to Carnegie Hall?" "Practice, practice,
practice," the same holds true for bonsai. Every beginner must first
"mangle, mutilate and finally murder a small juniper," again writes
Randy Clark, but the secrets of bonsai art eventually are disclosed
through the self-revelation of experience. No one need be a great
bonsai master in order to create bonsai. They simply must be
enthusiastic and persevering, with a wish not to tame nature, but,
instead, to reveal it, through the gentle art of bonsai.
- - - - - - - - - -
INDOOR BONSAI AS HOUSEPLANTS are becoming increasingly more
popular as people begin to take non-traditional indoor plants and
train them in the bonsai tradition. Many plants that make suitable
general houseplants, many of which come originally from tropical
countries - ficus, schefflera, Ming aralia, camellia, crassula,
dracaena, fuchia, hibiscus, poinsettia, succulents, rhododendron,
jasmine, ivy, even herbs - are finding their way into bonsai pots.
Because of their quick, non-dormant growing abilities, as well as
their usually more flexible trunks and branches, many of the tropical
plants are much faster to train to classical bonsai shapes than
temperate trees. For instant gratification bonsai that can be
displayed indoors all year round, tropical plants are a definite
This type of bonsai gives the budding bonsai artist more to do
in winter months, since tropical plants still grow during the cold
season and can be trimmed and shaped and wired. They are excellent
practice plants as well, since most tropical houseplants are far less
expensive than finished temperate zone bonsai trees.
Most indoor bonsai need to be near a bright window - not hot
sun, but bright indirect light - and appreciate good humidity, which
can be increased by keeping them on gravel trays filled with water so
that the pots sit above the water. All indoor bonsai will need water
before the soil goes completely dry. And because of the limited
amount of soil in a bonsai pot, it is important to fertilize often to
replenish the soil, feeding a bit less in winter when the plants are
in a slower growing season.
An excellent book to get started in indoor bonsai is INDOOR
BONSAI, by Paul Lesniewicz, Blandford Press, c1985, distributed by
Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 2 Park Avenue, New York, New York
10016, which describes in detail the specific needs of many kinds of
suitable indoor plants for bonsai, complete with pictures and helpful
line drawings demonstrating pruning and wire techniques.
- - - - - - - - - -
"The following information was accurate at the time of its initial apperance."
Sources For Getting Started In Bonsai
PLANTS, TOOLS, SUPPLIES, BOOKS, FINISHED BONSAI:
The Bonsai Farm, P.O. Box 130 Dept., Lavernia, TX 78121, free
Bonsai Creations, P.O. Box 7511, Ft. Lauderdale, Fl 33338.
Heritage Arts, 16651 S.E. 235th Street, Kent, WA 98042, Catalog
Jiu-San Bonsai, 1243 Melville Road, Farmingdale, NY 11735. No
Woodview Gardens, HC 68, Box 405H, St. Francisville, LA 70775.
Jerald Stowell, International Bonsai Master, Brookdale College,
Lincroft, NJ. Courses also by Stowell at Deep Cut Park, Red Hill
Road, Middletown, N.J.
Rosade Bonsai Studio, Box 303 Ely Rd, RD-1, New Hope, PA 18938
Matsu-Momiji Nursery, Steve Pilacik, P.O. Box 11414,
Philadelphia, PA 19111
International Bonsai Containers, 412 Pinnacle Road, Rochester,
Rockport Pottery, Richard Robertson, Box 1200 Vinal Road, W.
Rockport, Me 04865. Will custom design. Price list $1.00
The American Bonsai Society, Box 358, Keene, NH 03431.
Membership $18. Includes quarterly color magazine, quarterly
newsletter, discount book service, slide and video library.
Bonsai Clubs International, 2636 W. Mission Road, #277,
Tallahassee, Fl 32304. Membership $15. Includes BONSAI MAGAZINE,
discount book service, lending library, directory of bonsai
Deep Cut Bonsai Society,
Deep Cut Park, Red Hill Road,
Middletown, New Jersey 07748. Meets third Thursday of each month,
BOOKS (Many books not published in the United States are available
from bonsai supply stores listed above):
BONSAI: The Art of Growing and Keeping Miniature Trees, by
Peter Chan, Quintet Publishing Ltd., London, c1985. Superlative
large format book with excellent color photos as well as ancient
Japanese prints. Unsurpassed for culture and techniques, aesthetics,
styles, etc. Recommended by experienced growers.
THE ESSENTIALS OF BONSAI, by the editors of Shufunotomo, Timber
Press, Portland, Oregon, in cooperation with the American
Horticultural Society, c1982. Excellent color book with many
drawings, particularly good for explaining the classification of
styles, complete with pictures of each along with their Japanese
names. Good cultivation and techniques.
Zhimin, Blandford Press, distributed by Sterling Publishing Co.,
Inc., 2 Park Avenue, New York, New York 10016, c1988. Large format
color book that explains and depicts the Chinese style of bonsai that
incorporates landscapes and often figurines. Pictures good, but not
much in the way of culture.