The experience of bonsai

Story and Photos by Carolyn Tomlin

As a teenager, Brad Foresythe was looking at a gardening book about Japanese gardens, when he noticed a one-page description of bonsai. Intrigued, he discovered more material in the World Book Encyclopedia. However, neither article explained how they were created or maintained. Spellbound by this new information, he wanted to learn more. So in the mid 70s, he purchased his first bonsai tree from Brussell Martin in Memphis, Tennessee. (Martin has now become the largest importer of bonsai trees in the United States.)

What is Bonsai?
The term “bonsai” comes from a Japanese word that means, “planted in a container.” The goal of bonsai is creating a miniature, yet realistic, representation of nature, usually taking the form of a tree. These plants are not genetically dwarfed trees, but rather meticulously pruned. Many trees and shrubs can be used for bonsai plant, but those with smaller leaves are preferred.

A bonsai artist is always challenged by the forces of nature and the nature of the specimen.

One of the fascinating aspects of this art form is that the tree does not become a “bonsai” until it is moved into a special pot. It no longer lives in the ground, but is confined to a container. Drainage holes and wiring holes are essential. 

With a career in information technology (IT), Foresythe appreciates the tranquility that comes from gardening. With any stressful career, those who garden can cleanse their mind when working with soil and plants. “Bonsai is like working a jigsaw puzzle and looking for the shapes that might fit and focus on finding that piece,” says Foresythe. “While I’m wiring a limb or trimming a root mass, I can’t concentrate on anything else. For me, it’s total relaxation.

“The most important thing I’ve discovered about bonsai is that it is a constant learning experience,” said Foresythe. “Plant pathology, life cycles, and plant husbandry are ongoing. Every new season, year, decade, brings with it new lessons of management, maintenance, design challenges, and design maturity.” The gardener compares learning bonsai to that of other art forms … much like a painter or sculptor. He advises other gardeners to learn from your teacher, your colleagues, your club or society. “It’s a never ending process that brings enjoyment.”

LEFT: This azalea (Rhododendron indicum) is approximately 40 years old and was displayed at a show in North Carolina. RIGHT: ‘Shimpaku’ Chinese juniper (Juniperus chinensis ‘Shimpaku’) is 40-60 years old and has been in Foresythe’s care since 2001.

Another thing that Foresythe has learned is that bonsai is a matter of timing. It’s vital that you know when to apply a particular technique. You are working with a living specimen and it reflects how you manage, maintain, design, and display your plant. 

A bonsai artist is always challenged by the forces of nature and the nature of the specimen. Foresythe says, “Do not expect the tree to do something ‘unnatural’ to its nature. You can’t force a design on tree. As to environmental challenges, keep the plant as healthy as possible so that it can display the design you both can desire. And, the rewards? A plant you can grow and display with pride.”

Foresythe shares these pointers learned from working with bonsai professionals. Learn from others. Connect with a bonsai society, a teacher, a club, and from people who share this passion. Share your information. Japan and Europe have major bonsai shows with large prizes. The United States has annual shows on the East Coast and the West Coast. By joining clubs and groups, an artist grows into the level required for a national show presentation.

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