Archive for Sunday, September 3, 2000

Buckaroo bonsai

September 3, 2000


With bonsai, art imitates life -- on a diminutive scale.

From the microcosm of a small tray or pot, the miniature trees are supposed to mimic their giant counterparts in nature.

Until the past few decades, the art of bonsai (pronounced bone-sigh) had been practiced mainly on the coasts. Now, bonsai can be found on patios and decks throughout the Midwest.

Some Lawrence hobbyists try to adhere to ancient Chinese and Japanese techniques, while others just prune and shape until they like what they see.

Bonsai, literally translated, means potted tree or tray tree, though bonsai also can be grown on rocks and wood. Pre-trained bonsai, start-up supplies and pots have been popular purchases at local nurseries the past year.

"There's a growing crowd of people in Lawrence interested in bonsai," said Jim Gardner, manager of Earl May Nursery & Garden Center, 3200 Iowa.

Dabblers and die-hards

One look at Gene Manahan's bonsai collection reveals that he's more than a casual cultivator. He has been a member of the Bonsai Society of Greater Kansas City for 30 years.

Maples, junipers and buttonwoods at various stages of maturity grow in shallow pots and from the tops of weatherworn rocks in his back yard. His gingko bonsai is more than 100 years old and still rises only about three feet from its pot.

"It's not how old they are," Manahan said. "It's how old they look."

Old age is the aesthetic Manahan tries to achieve with all his trees. He employs techniques -- such as texturing the bark or gouging out part of the trunk -- that make the tree look gnarly.

"Over time, you sort of get an idea of what you like and what you don't really care for," Manahan said.

Bonsai can be created with any type of tree; it's the method of growing and caring for the plant that make the difference. Putting a tree in a small pot is not enough. The roots must be trimmed in proportion with the branches to keep the tree dwarfed.

Art and beauty

Beyond basic horticultural principles, keeping bonsai requires an eye for beauty.

Richard League, past president of the Lawrence Garden Club, owned more than 100 bonsai when he lived in Florida. He said some of the most beautiful bonsai were pruned so that they had a low branch, representing Earth, a higher branch in another direction representing man, and a third branch representing heaven.

"But you can break the rules a little," he said. "Art is not a static thing; it's a growing thing."

Greg Gibler has been dabbling in bonsai for about six years. His tree bears tiny white flowers each spring and loses its leaves in the fall.

"I'm so busy that it's a casual thing right now," he said. "I just learn by experimenting with it."

A lush coating of moss covers the sandy soil in which the tree is planted. It helps keep the soil moist, Gibler said, and it's beautiful. He picked the moss out of the woods.

Here are three Web sites to get started:www.bonsaiweb.comwww.bonsaisite.comwww.bonsaicenter.comThese sites introduce amateurs to the art of bonsai and include tips on choosing a tree, selecting a container, pruning and shaping. The sites include discussion forums, articles, calendars of bonsai club events across the country and links to bonsai supply stores.The American Bonsai Society Homepage,, includes an online bonsai reference guide and information about how to join the society. Members receive quarterly editions of the ABS Bonsai Journal.

"You can get it out of the country by a stream," he said. "It grows on rocks in shady areas all over the place."

Constant care

Contrary to some myths, keeping a tree in a tiny pot is not torturous. But it does require more care than a normal potted plant.

Most bonsai need water daily, sometimes twice in hot Kansas weather. Regular fertilizing is a must as well.

Except for a few varieties of trees specially suited for indoor growing, like ficus, bonsai should be kept outside. Some people move their trees to a greenhouse during the harsh winter months, but they also can be packed in straw or mulch and left outside to winter.

A lifestyle choice

Donna Coleman, greenhouse manager at Sunrise Garden Center, 15th and New York streets, said she is careful to explain proper care to people who buy "pretrained" bonsai and regular nursery stock to turn into bonsai. She said the center sells about 50 pretrained trees each year.

"On the scale of everything we grow here, which is about everything on the market, I would think bonsai is definitely the lowest man on the list," she said.

Coleman and others speculated that perhaps the fast pace of modern life deterred people from committing to such a time-intensive project.

"Most of us aren't geared for that patient lifestyle," Coleman said. "Everything we do is instant gratification."


Bonsai first began in China more than a thousand years ago. The Japanese adopted and refined the practice late in the 12th century.

At one time, bonsai were symbols of prestige and honor among the aristocracy, but they have become commonplace in Japan and around the world.

Ancient cultivation techniques have followed bonsai through time. The trees are kept small by pruning branches and roots, pinching off new growth and periodically repotting. Wiring the branches and trunk with annealed copper or aluminum wire coerces the tree to grow in a desired shape.

Asymmetry is part of the Japanese aesthetic and deems that bonsai should be planted off-center in their containers.

"If you have a pot -- especially a rectangular pot -- it's almost obscene to plop a tree in the center of the pot," League said.

Some bonsai enthusiasts will order pots only from Japan, but they're available at Lawrence nurseries. Manahan said a good rule of thumb for choosing pots that look best is to use glazed pots for fruiting or flowering trees and unglazed pots for everything else.

"You kind of like to have the pot not detract from the tree," he said.

Unlike with trees in most front yards, League said, a bonsai plant's roots often will be its most interesting feature.

"They should be more sticking out than sticking in," he said.

In fact, some bonsai are grown over the tops of large rocks so their roots wrap around the rock before entering the soil.

All in good time

It may take 10 or 20 years for a potted tree to take on the look of a nice bonsai. Some trees in Japan and China are hundreds of years old and have been passed down through generations.

"I was always intrigued with the idea that these things were like family heirlooms in Japan," League said. "The Japanese have this kind of patience that has always astonished Westerners."

Gibler said part of the fun was in the slow pace of the hobby.

"You have to really love nature," he said. "I get excited when I see the trees growing and developing and I'm able to kind of manipulate them a bit."

Bonsai are works in progress. Unlike a painting or sculpture that is finished when the artist quits working, bonsai is a living art, never complete as long as the tree is alive.

"It's an art form," League said. "These things are actually treasures."

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