Are you looking for a new hobby? A way to express yourself? Maybe something you can share with family? Something creative but cheap, well relatively cheap, but very fulfilling while allowing you to work at your own pace?
If you’re looking for something like this to try your hand at, you might enjoy practicing the ancient art of bonsai. (pronounced bone-sigh)
According to the New York Times Style Magazine, the practice of miniaturizing plants is believed to have come to Japan from China around the 7th century, when the two countries formally established diplomatic relations. By then, Chinese gardeners had probably been creating potted landscapes, or penjing (“potted landscapes”), for hundreds of years.
In 1913, a shipment of plants from the Yokohama Nursery Co. in Japan arrived in the port of San Francisco, among them a seven-foot-tall trident maple for the Japanese pavilion at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition to be held two years later. Over a century old, the tree was an example of the Imperial style, a type of bonsai developed for shoguns and feudal lords and named after the imperial court during the Meiji Restoration in the 19th century, an era of cultural transformation that followed the 214 years of isolation. Evenly spaced branches protruded from a twisted trunk in a soft contrapposto, its clusters of spring green foliage suggesting the outline of an isosceles triangle. Like most bonsai of this era, the maple expressed an ageless ideal of the natural world wrested from equilibrium.
The masters of this art say that there is a point of balance, you strengthen this point and everything comes true. When practitioners do this, their trees can survive them for centuries, their growth slowed, but never completely halted, by confinement; if the specimens are unbalanced, they eventually wither and die.
East Lawrence bonsai expert and president of the Living Art Bonsai Society, Philip Terry accidentally got involved in creating living beauty with these little trees when he discovered he could create these little wonders with cedars that he had mowed several times.
He says with a laugh that by digging them up and putting them in pots, he automatically became a bonsai. “I had mowed them down about three times and they kept coming up, I finally noticed the shape they had taken on looked a lot like a bonsai tree, and had to try it.”
Terry has been creating these unusual trees for about 17 years. When he started, he needed guidance, so he joined a bonsai company in Huntsville. The group met at a member’s home at the time, but when she became unable to care for herself, they moved to the Huntsville Botanical Garden, where, in exchange for bonsai work on the site of the Garden Railway, they were allowed to meet there.
Recently they moved the meeting to East Lawrence. The core group from Huntsville makes the trip once a month. Terry is the current group president of the Living Art Bonsai Society (LABS).
“The ultimate goal of a perfect bonsai is for it to be beautiful in all four seasons,” he explained. “In the winter the branches should be shaped to look interesting, in the spring the buds start to show signs of life, in the summer they are in full foliage (some with flowers) and in the fall they should put on a show with their vibrant colors.
He should know that his own bonsai garden now has about forty-five potted trees in various stages. There are different varieties included in the bonsai alley behind his house. Some are deciduous and can be left outside, others require some protection.
Some of the best trees to start with can be found at local nurseries. “Plants like sergeant’s juniper or trident maples are good for beginners,” Terry suggested.
“The definition of bonsai is ‘Small potted tree,'” he explained. “Basically, if you do that and keep it pruned, you can keep it alive in a pot for years.”
According to Terry, bonsai trees can come in different heights, shapes and sizes. “There are trees in pots the size of toy cars, or so small you can fit them in the palm of your hand,” Terry said.
They also have different temperature requirements. Some are tropical in nature and require above freezing temperatures in the winter, while others can withstand very cold conditions and are happiest left outside so they can go through their natural dormancy cycle.
One of the first things Terry asks newcomers to the organization is “how many trees have you killed already?” »
“That’s because when you start you’re probably going to kill several trees until you get it right,” he laughed. “That’s the advantage of coming to these meetings; there are people here who can help you learn how to keep them alive. We have discussions and we often have experts who come to talk to us about different techniques. »
Terry says that after a meeting, you can learn the basics of creating a tree for your deck or patio. “This is a lifelong learning experience,” he said. “You will acquire more skills as you go.”
This ancient art is very rewarding and can be started with trees from your own garden or purchased from a local nursery. There are many types of shapes, most dictated by the tree itself, but you can modify the natural growth habit by wiring the limbs to the desired shape.
Pots come in all shapes, sizes and price ranges. Most are low and oval or square in shape, and all should have good drainage holes in the bottom. Probably the most common way to kill a potted plant is to overwater. “That’s the great thing about meeting this group,” Terry said. “Between us, we killed a lot of trees! However, it teaches us what not to do.
Meetings are held once a month, every third Saturday, at 1:00 p.m. at Kids Kount Daycare, 23631 AL Hwy. 24 (Gordon Terry Drive)
Annual membership fees are $20 per year for the whole family. New members are welcome.
Visitors are admitted free of charge and are always welcome.
For more information, or to see photos of various bonsai trees, visit the group’s face book page, “Living Art Bonsai Society” or their website, www.livingartbonsaisociety.org