January 2008 Issue
Bonsai challenges hobbyists to create living works of art.
In a world where bigger is generally considered better, Wildwood Gardens in Hambden Township is a nursery unique among its northeast Ohio counterparts. The trees, some over a century old, have been dwarfed to tabletop size by hours of patient pruning into idealized shapes inspired by nature. Some belong to 83-year-old owner Anthony Mihalic and his son Frank. Others are the property of students in Frank’s Saturday-morning bonsai class or members of the Ohio Great Lakes Bonsai Club, which meets at the nursery.
“I’ve had one guy who’s been here for 25 years studying with me,” Frank says. “He’s very good — I don’t know if there’s anything else I can teach him.”
As he walks between the rows of shelves, Frank points out a number of trees that illustrate some of the classic bonsai styles: a sentinel-straight spruce in the formal upright style; junipers with curving trunks and branches that illustrate the informal upright style; and a black pine wired into a cascade of green over the side of its container. One of the most dramatic specimens is a Japanese maple with exposed roots growing over a rock half-hidden in the soil, clutching it like the tentacles of a baby octopus.
The nursery is the result of a lifelong passion passed on from father to son. Anthony developed an interest in rare, unusual and dwarf plants as a child growing up in Belmont County — he used small plants to create landscapes around maple-syrup tins shaped like log cabins. As an adult, he worked on bonsai after he punched out from his job on an Eaton Corp. assembly line and sold them during vacation trips to bonsai convention sites.
“The shows paid for our vacations,” Frank, now 51, recalls with a smile.
The bonsai enthusiasts frequenting Wildwood Gardens run the gamut from doctors and college professors to housewives and high-school students. Some are from the nearby Berkshire school system, where Frank Mihalic oversees an in-school detention program.
“A lot of the appeal [of bonsai] is the challenge,” says Mihalic. “What can you make out of that tree?”
Dan Binder, a bonsai specialist at the Franklin Park Conservatory in Columbus, believes creating a living work of art “takes you away from your surroundings and into a different realm.”
Almost any woody tree, shrub or vine can be used to accomplish this feat — Mihalic and Binder mention everything from boxwood to chrysanthemums. “Bonsai is an art form, not a type of plant,” Frank stresses.
Those who prefer a head start in reducing foliage and roots can purchase “pre-bonsai,” which are priced according to the variety of plant and style/quality of bonsai. Anyone willing to start from scratch, however, can pick up an ordinary plant at the neighborhood nursery or garden center for far less money.
Mihalic suggests beginners stick with a deciduous or evergreen tree that can stay outside year-round. Both he and Binder single out junipers and pines, although Binder adds that maples “are almost ready-made for bonsai.”
When shopping for a plant, Mihalic recommends looking for one with a smooth, tapered trunk, plenty of branches and foliage, and a good root structure. The latter can be determined by digging into the dirt to expose them. “With a good bonsai, you really can see how those roots are grabbing and holding firm to the soil,” Binder says.
Familiarizing oneself with the basic styles of bonsai also helps in the selection process.
Mihalic includes photographs of what he describes as slanting and broom styles (a straight trunk topped by a broom-like dome of foliage) with the aforementioned formal upright, informal upright, and cascade styles in his self-published book, The Art of Bonsai. (According to both Mihalic and Binder, the refined Japanese style of bonsai is more popular in this country than the pastoral Chinese equivalent; therefore they limit their comments almost exclusively to it.)
Binder urges first-timers to buy several plants of different species. “If one plant does die, then it’s not so catastrophic,” he says.
When it comes to supplies, a good potting medium is perhaps the most critical to maintaining a healthy bonsai. Unlike most potting soils — heavy mixtures that contain a lot of fine organic material — the bonsai counterpart is a light, porous composition that drains quickly so the roots can breathe. Binder mentions a kitty litter-like product called Turface, while Mihalic describes a Wildwood Gardens mixture of high-fired crushed shale and pine bark. Because the potting mixture doesn’t retain water and contains little or no nutrients, daily watering and frequent fertilizing are necessary. Mihalic says just about any prepared fertilizer will do. However, he recommends cutting the strength of mix-it-yourself fertilizers in half:
The shallow bonsai pot figures prominently in artistic presentation. Ideally, it should reflect the plant’s style and character. According to Mihalic, strong, rugged trees should be in rectangular pots, delicate, fragile-looking trees in round or oval containers. Binder says the “drip zone,” or outer perimeter of foliage, will determine the size of the pot. “It needs to capture the entire plant, but not be so big that it detracts from the plant itself,” he says.
Before reducing the root ball, Binder recommends taking the plant out of the nursery container, carefully laying it on its side, and removing as much soil as possible without taking the fine roots with it, either by gently flushing the dirt away with a garden-hose spray attachment or carefully raking it away with a root rake. He suggests starting by removing old, dying or dead roots. “The very tips of the growing roots are going to be white or a lighter color,” he notes. The key to pruning the root ball is keeping it in proportion to the existing foliage.
“If you take away, say, a third of the root mass, you have to do the same to the top,” Binder says. “If you eliminate roots without reducing the foliage mass, they’re not going to be able to supply enough moisture.”
Similarly, dead and dying branches are often removed during the first prunings of foliage. Since the bonsai is typically composed of one-third trunk and two-thirds foliage, the bottom-most branches are also removed. (Binder recommends concave cutters, which cut larger branches with a cut that doesn’t scar the trunk.) Exposing the trunk and roots, he says, is critical to determining the “front” of the bonsai — the most pleasing angle from which to view it. “When an artist is designing a bonsai, he or she is starting at the trunk and going up from there,” he says.
Basic bonsai design dictates a triangular foliage mass composed of branches that become shorter, thinner and closer together toward the top of the plant in an orderly fashion. Mihalic explains that the longest branch, referred to as the No. 1 branch, is located at the very bottom of the foliage mass on the left or right side, the second-longest opposite it on the other side of the tree, and the third-longest at the back of the tree, each higher on the trunk than the last. The pattern continues up the plant, with no branch directly above one another, to its apex.
“Bonsai takes a little bit of patience,” Binder admits. “You have to plan for the future. But after some time, you can really enjoy something that you’ve created.”