Bonsai: Interviews


©1989 judywhite. All Rights Reserved. This article first appeared in Garden State Home and Garden Magazine, Dec 1989. 72230,1154

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 beautiful."

     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 well.

     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 the birds.

     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.

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     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 solution.

     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.

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"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 catalog
     Bonsai Creations, P.O. Box 7511, Ft. Lauderdale, Fl 33338. Catalog $2.50
     Heritage Arts, 16651 S.E. 235th Street, Kent, WA 98042, Catalog $2.00
     Jiu-San Bonsai, 1243 Melville Road, Farmingdale, NY 11735. No mail order
     Woodview Gardens, HC 68, Box 405H, St. Francisville, LA 70775. Free catalog.

LESSONS, DEMONSTRATIONS:

     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

BONSAI POTS:
     International Bonsai Containers, 412 Pinnacle Road, Rochester, NY 14623
     Rockport Pottery, Richard Robertson, Box 1200 Vinal Road, W. Rockport, Me 04865. Will custom design. Price list $1.00

BONSAI SOCIETIES:

     The American Bonsai Society, Box 358, Keene, NH 03431. Membership $18. Includes quarterly color magazine, quarterly newsletter, discount book service, slide and video library. Membership 14,000.

     Bonsai Clubs International, 2636 W. Mission Road, #277, Tallahassee, Fl 32304. Membership $15. Includes BONSAI MAGAZINE, discount book service, lending library, directory of bonsai suppliers.

     Deep Cut Bonsai Society, Deep Cut Park, Red Hill Road, Middletown, New Jersey 07748. Meets third Thursday of each month, 7:30 pm.

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.