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PARIS Spring 2004

Living Art

Do you like to be creative? Do you want to try new things in the garden but don't want to commit? Do you want variety but don't have the space in the garden? Do you like interesting decorations for your landscape? Do you have patience? If these questions apply to you then there is a very expressive type of gardening you should try: Bonsai.
The Japanese cultural is based on the integration of art and living. Bonsai is the zenith of this practice. Like many of the other Japanese living arts, the essence of bonsai is often misinterpreted in the West. When most people think of bonsai, they probably think of dwarf trees growing in small pots to be used for house plants. The purpose of this edition of Green with Envy is to dispel these misconceptions and offer some ways to use bonsai in creating

Bonsai 101

Before one can understand the true essence of bonsai, one must first abandon the three most common misconceptions about bonsai. Let me deal with each in turn:

Bonsai are dwarf trees growing in pots. Bonsai are trees (or shrubs pruned to look like trees) that grow in pots. However, bonsai are not dwarf varieties of trees. Rather, bonsai stay small because the root growth is constricted by the size of the pots. So, virtually any tree variety can be used to create a bonsai. It is the size of the pot that determines the type of bonsai grown, and the pot is an integral part of creating bonsai. In fact, the term bonsai refers to the tree and the pot in which it grows.

Bonsai are houseplants. Even though bonsai grow in pots, they are not intended to grow indoors. In fact, growing bonsai indoors requires more attention than allowing the bonsai to develop outside. Bonsai are intended to be
part of the living landscape. They are miniature recreations of nature and are best viewed in nature. Because bonsai are trees (or shrubs), they will thrive in the natural environment. In very cool climates, bonsai should be protected from extended freezes and harsh winds. This may necessitate bringing the bonsai indoors, but this should only be done for short periods of time.
Bonsai are objects. We commonly think of bonsai as the object itself…the plant and pot. Bonsai is really a process. That is, the art is realized in the steps taken to produce the product rather than the product itself. As with other living arts, the real beauty is the peace of mind and sense of accomplishment one feels as the creation of bonsai occurs. Bonsai is a very slow process requiring great patience. When creating bonsai, one can only realize the effect of decisions after weeks or even seasons of growing. However, bonsai requires many decisions and much forethought in order to create the desired effect. So, the beauty of bonsai is not how the plant looks in the landscape, but how one interacts with nature as it grows.

As Big As It Gets

There are many types and styles of bonsai. The type of style one chooses for the bonsai depends on what kind of look is intended or what one senses from the plant itself. Of course, bonsai can be created with no particular style in mind. The only rigid classification on bonsai is size of the pot (which in turn determines the size of the plant). Shito and Mame are the smallest types of bonsai. The tree size in these varieties may be no taller than about five inches. These are, as you might imagine, very difficult to grow. Shohin is the next size up. These pots have much more area and can support trees that have well-defined branch structure. Finally, there are the larger sized bonsai. These types are classified as "Man" trees because they are defined by how many men it takes to move the pot. In general, mame and shohin are the sizes one most often seen in bonsai.

So, why make bonsai so small? Bonsai are intended to recreate old weathered trees that occur in nature. Each bonsai should tell a story of life's struggle against nature. Each contortion and flaw is a testament to one's perseverance. Just as each individual deals with life's struggles in different ways, each bonsai style suggests a different way to triumph over the environment. Formal Upright and Broom style bonsai demonstrate resistance to the environment. Formal upright style have straight (sometime contorted) trunks with symmetrical branches. Broom styles are usually grown with deciduous trees and resemble a child's rendering of a tree with all of the foliage at the top. Roots Exposed and Roots Over Rocks styles demonstrate resilience to the environment. The exposure of the tree roots is a very dramatic effect. Cascade, Slanting, and Windswept styles show perseverance. Cascade style allows the main trunk of the tree to grow down over the lip of the pot in the manner of a vine. Slanting style trees have trunks that grow (usually contorted) at acute angles. Windswept style gives the impression of constant torment by allowing the foliage and branches to grow to one side only. Of course, mixing and matching styles allows for increased expression and visual interest.

Nothing as Lovely as a Tree

Even though the beauty of bonsai is in the process of growing them, they do make pleasing additions to the landscape. Bonsai can be used anywhere a potted plant would be used. The unique visual interest of bonsai makes them a perfect accent to outdoor living areas. Several bonsai can be grouped together to create a powerful display or be used as accents to other plantings.

Bonsai can also be used as the basis for another (and very much related) Japanese art. Saikei is the art of miniature landscapes. This art uses bonsai and miniature decorations to recreate landscape scenes. Often times, saikei will incorporate several bonsai as well as elements such as sculpture, structures, and paths to create a landscape that one can envision but cannot create in full scale.

Now Get Out There

Bonsai really make excellent landscape elements. The reward, however, is the process of creating one's own miniature expression. To get more information about bonsai, the process of creating bonsai, or techniques used to grow and maintain bonsai, the Bonsai Primer web site [http://www.bonsaiprimer.com] is an excellent source. So, if you love to garden, I encourage to focus your passion on the ultimate art of creation…bonsai. If you have any questions about this article or gardening in general, please contact me at bink@fasionlines.com