By Leora McTall, Master Gardener
Recently Alex Livingston, a Belleville Bonsai Master, inspired his audience with his passion for bonsai, or as he explained, “I’m just crazy” (about bonsai). He gave an enthusiastic bonsai lesson and had brought a few of his prized bonsai trees to show off to the Belleville Garden Club members. He has 38 bonsai trees in all.
So what is bonsai? When translated from the Japanese term, bonsai means “planted in a container”. The art of bonsai actually began in China some 2000 years ago and then was copied by the Japanese and taken as their own. Bonsai only came to our country in the late 19th century and became popular after WWII when soldiers brought bonsai trees home from Japan only to lose them due to lack of proper care.
The purpose of bonsai is to grow a miniature tree to resemble an old, real-life tree. A bonsai tree is never done. As it grows its shape changes, and the owner keeps pruning, trimming and wiring, so the shape is pleasing to the eye. Bonsai is 90% art and 10% horticulture. Some say it is cruelty to trees to squelch the growth of lovely, big trees.
Now that fall is here and winter is nigh, what a perfect hobby for gardeners! There are indoor and outdoor trees from which to choose – the tropical plants (e.g. Ficus, Jade) for indoors, and the evergreen and deciduous trees (e.g. Juniper, Cedar, Japanese Maple, Magnolia, Elm) for outdoors.
After deciding whether you prefer the indoor or outdoor bonsai, there are 3 choices as to how to begin this new hobby:
1. Buy a bonsai tree which is already started – container and all.
2. Kits are available.
3. Perhaps the most rewarding is to get a regular shrub or tree, find an appropriate container, and start pruning and wiring.
You will need sharp pruners and trimmers (special “bonsai tools” are available on the market), and copper or aluminum wire which doesn’t rust.
After you have chosen your plant, the shallow container is next. Livingston finds containers at yard sales or discount stores. This is when the artistic eye comes in handy in order to coordinate the plant and container. The plant is then wired into the container.
The care differs between indoor and outdoor plants just as it does in the real world, and there are several websites with detailed instructions.
Livingston is known to work late into the night on his outside bonsai. When he hears a tapping on the window, he knows it is his wife signaling that it’s time for bed.
Some of the basic styles of bonsai are: Broom style, formal upright, informal upright, slanting, cascade, semi-cascade, windswept, double trunk, and forest, but you are free to create your very own style.
The best way to learn a new hobby is to join a club! The closest bonsai clubs are in St. Louis, and Springfield. Even if you know you will never grow a bonsai tree yourself, take time to visit a bonsai show to understand the passion of Master Bonsai growers such as Alex Livingston and to appreciate the patience required for this ancient and fascinating art.
Passion for Bonsai