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The Art of Bonsai

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

 It is a humbling thing, to start a tree from seed, put it in a small pot, and care for it for 37 years. This is not something that you can accomplish by wishing you could do it, by talking about doing it, or by having the good intention to keep it alive and thriving. You have to BE there for the tree. You have to remember to water it; you have to knock it out of the pot and make a safe place to overwinter it for 37 Novembers to Aprils. You have to dig it back out and repot it in the spring, trim the roots and top back just so, get it through the dog days of summer, sometimes watering twice a day. You can't wink out on your watch or it will die.

And so a bonsai tree 37 years in the pot speaks of commitment, it speaks of constancy and good care. I used to look at pictures of elderly Japanese people, wrapped in kimonos as they watered their bonsai, and read how the trees are passed from generation to generation, because they outlive their caretakers. All this I started, when I started some tiny two-leaved seedlings I dug from under some trees 37 years ago, when I was fresh out of college. My 40th reunion is 2020. These trees have seen me through two relationships; they pre-date my marriage to Bill; they've been with me since I was 24, moving from Connecticut to Maryland to Ohio, and staying for good with me in Ohio.

I asked Liam to sit next to them for a photo on his sixth birthday, November 8, 2005. He was into trains and pumpkins. Ahh, he melts my heart, with his fingers laced tightly together, the yellow "fantana" he picked out to wear so he'd look like a real conductor. That sweet boy.

 Now look at the biggest tree, in the middle. It's been in the pot for 23 years. It's in peak fall color. It's already a specimen. I also notice that the mandevilla clinging to the house has escaped the frost. The columnar blue juniper to the right has long since died and been replaced with a golden chamaecyparis, but the bonsais, and Liam, go on.


I wish I'd thought to take this shot every year, but opportunities go by every minute of every day. I did decide to recreate it on Liam's 17th birthday in November 2016, and I'm so glad I did.  Same trees in the same arrangement. Everyone has grown. There's Chet Baker, 11, hoping for a piece of maple cake. There's the cake, decorated with leaves from the same tree, now 34 years in the pot. There's beautiful Liam with his happy smile and the world stretched out in front of him. A morning glory has replaced the mandevilla. He carved the pumpkin. Mom just stood back and watched.

You'll notice that this tree has a split trunk. That happened in 1993, right after our wedding. A raccoon knocked it off the porch railing. It was dumb of me to keep it on the railing, in a beautiful midnight blue round that also broke in the accident. When I picked it up the next morning the trunk was split in two.

I called my dad. I still had a dad then. I could ask him what to do. He and I had stood on that porch at my wedding, looking at the young bonsais, only 11 years in their pots. He had been so thrilled to see them, so impressed that I could keep them going through all my life changes, all my moves. He loved trees so very much, and he'd been my guide and mentor in growing things since I was in kindergarten, and I brought home my first purple petunia in a paper cup.

"Tape it together. Keep it watered. It'll live." And I did. I slathered it with white artist's tape and I think I dripped some candle wax on the wound, to keep the bugs out.  The trunk was cleanly bifurcated, and after it healed and the tape came off, it was more beautiful for the coon's careless act.  Man, it was beautiful. I love to think that I have something my father saw and touched. I love to think of the times when I could still call him for advice. He died April 10, 1994.  The tree went on.

 Here it is when Liam was just nine, and the house was grayish-green, and Baker was a shiny wasp-waisted masterpiece.



Liam was helping me put the bonsais to bed, when they still fit in a little cinderblock-lined pit I'd dug under the back deck. Jeez, I look like a kid, too.

 This was always our largest tree, and it was awesome even in 2008. Imagine it now, 11 years hence. Imagine us all.


Our subject in 2013, in its prime, in best fall color.
 Snow caught me before I was able to put it to bed in 2013. The bifurcated trunk, neatly highlighted in white.

2016. It's the one in the blue pot. See how leggy it's gotten? 


 I bumped it up into the red-brown pot in 2017. It's lost most of its leaves, and you can see it's way outgrown that pot, at least by my standards, and it's time to give it more foot room.



Spring of 2018,  above, with the bluebells from my sweet friend Jen a-blooming. Our tree is the center one, silhouetted against the boxwoods. It's got no lower branches coming at all. It's just going for broke, heading up and out.  I've given it a bigger pot, and that's helped with its general health, but it still has a lanky shape and, short of totally beheading it, I can't figure out how to reshape it so the top is in proportion to the roots and trunk. I don't want to behead it.What to do? This tree was becoming No Longer an Asset. This is my coded phrase for house plants that have outgrown their beauty and usefulness. But this is no houseplant. This is a tree, a spirit, a thing I revere, a thing of permanence. After so many years being bumped from tiny, to small, to medium, to large pots, it was tired of confinement. When a tree is just DONE with being subjected to the art of bonsai, it lets you know. 

I had begun to think about planting this Japanese maple out in 2015.  By "planting out," I mean setting it free. Letting it be the tree it is trying to be. I had no idea where I’d put it. There were already two liberated bonsai in the yard, and they offer delightful deep maple shade now, being tall enough to allow us to set up lawn chairs beneath their splendid tiny leaves and fine, fine branches. So we do. It’s lovely to take a cool drink and your laptop or the phone or a good book and go outside and sit under what was once a potted bonsai. It’s like having a room of your own, outdoors. Sitting under a liberated bonsai makes you think about growth and constancy, time and the power of trees.

 And the fall color is still incredible.

When Bill died, I knew what I wanted to do. I now had a new place and a  perfect spot to turn this fretful tree loose. I'd plant it near his grave, where it would eventually give us shade to sit under when we visited him. It took me a good while to get around to it, though, because it isn’t a trivial thing, planting a tree that stands waist-high. I decided to start schooling it for release in April, moving it from its usual partly shaded spot to full sun, because it was going to have to get used to baking out in the open meadow. 

I’ve had a heck of a time keeping all my trees adequately watered in the brutal heat waves this summer. When their trunks get as big around as your arm, they drink a lot! Here's the bifurcated trunk of this tiny but massive tree in 2018. Thank you, Long-dead Raccoon.

 Truth be told, I was happy to contemplate letting Mother Nature and its considerable root system take care of this largest of my bonsais going forward. I’ve been watering this tree for more than half my life! 

To be continued... 

Sorry about the antic type sizes in this post. I've been beating my head against Blogger's wall for an hour, trying to get everything to a readable size. I think I've effected a change, and it reverts back to caption size text when I publish. Pbbbbbt!


This post touched me deeply. I have nurtured my children since just after college and like your Bonsai, they have outgrown the pots I planted them in many times. Five years ago, my daughter moved to Boston and set herself free. She has put down roots there, if only temporary and flourished in the Boston cold and heat, (she laughs at Bostonian's idea of a hot day). Planting a tree that you have nurtured for all of your adult life by Bill's grave is so beautifully symbolic.

There are times when I feel I am a kindred spirit to you, Julie. Oh, I do not have your plants smarts. I do not have your healing nurturing touch for things feathered and furred. I do not have anything approaching your "smarts."
BUT--I love trees. So, this post thrills me. I have planted many trees in the yard around our house. A beautiful TALL Douglas fir sits in our front yard--easily 70 feet high. It was our first Christmas tree (root ball tree less then 5 feet tall), replanted and growing. However, it has recently developed some sort of slow acting disease. Each year the needles at the tips of its branches get brown. So, I am watching it--talking to it, encouraging it.
We also had a lovely ash tree--I had planted it as a bare root stock. I never thought emerald ash borer would get it, but it did. The ash tree struggled for several years, losing more leaves, and frantically putting up little branches from the base of the root ball--desperate to stay alive.
Just this year, we had a small crabapple tree suddenly keel over--no wind or great storm brought it down. The only thing I can see is rotting at the base. Why? Don't know.
Now, I walk around my yard every days--touching trees, talking to them. Hoping they stay with me.
Trees alone give me hope for the future--the way each year hundreds of baby maples sprout up. Or the volunteer redbud trees popping up. Or the several holly bushes I have that I did NOT plant. That alone makes me think that if we humans hopelessly ruin this wonderful earth--trees will still thrive.

I love this idea of setting a Bonsaied tree free to grow after so many years. I also applaud your faithful care and the incredible beauty of each of your potted trees. What a joy to nurture and care for something so precious. Look forward to the next post.

I had a lovely Japanese Maple in a pot (not bonsaied) that we just moved to the garden this spring. Just decided I wanted one less tree in a pot and had the perfect spot for it. It's looking absolutely gorgeous. I'll bet yours will thrive and bless you in it's new spot as well.

In my mind's eye, I see your maple there already. Its starry burgundy leaves offset by the pink, purple and gold of the prairie flowers, the wire fencing perhaps joined by a stone bench. Who would not be pleased by such a setting. XO


He wore his yellow 'fantana'!

This breaks my heart a little.

I just finished Richard Powers' 'The Overstory' about trees being "the most wondrous products of four billion years of life" and the people whose lives trees touch. It won this year's Pulitzer Prize and you might enjoy it (in all of your free time).

Is there a philosophy behind bonsai?

I love when perfect solutions show up right on time. It's fitting that your tree lives in the meadow now.

I have a ornamental orange tree that I've toted around for almost 30 years. It, too, has outlived it's...oh not really, it's just gotten too big and unbelievably heavy and hates to spend the winters indoors and...I don't know what to do with it. I can't set it free in this climate :-/.

@thecrazysheeplady the obvious answer is to move to Florida. I mean, duh.

Many thanks to everyone for their lovely comments. I couldn't begin to outline the philosophy behind bonsai. Philosophies. Why we do it. It's a search for perfection, I think, contained in a tree. @KGMom, I get it. I get so attached to the trees I know. On the rare occasions they die or keel over it just kills a part of me. Keep loving them!

It is so beautiful what you do. I love it.

How you make me bawl with just a simple sentence some days, Julie! But then, you manage to arrive somehow at such beautiful ways of acknowledging and appreciating things I'm smiling too. What a wonderful life that tree is having with all of you, still walking the earth or not.

My father thought it was stupid to plant trees you wouldn't see grow. He also thought growing flowers was stupid...can't eat them. My little oak I raised from an acorn gives me pleasure. And the illnesses of ash and spruce and the aging of my sugar maples saddens me. I know what KGMom is saying. they become ill or diseased but we don't even know until too late.

I had no idea Bonsai were just regular Japanese Maples! It really helps to research these things. I had one I got at Home Depot (we are in so cal.)put it in yard per instructions to keep it out of full sun. Nearing our "winter" all the leaves fell off and I cried. Then one day in spring while out watering lo and behold...leaves! I cried again. then I read somewhere it wanted full sun so I moved it. (it was still potted) and I killed it. I apologized and cried some more and havent been able to commit again. I love seeing them pop up in affluent yards though. Just glorious color!

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