One Spring a few years ago, I dug up some maple trees and a few box elders from the garden and hedge along the side of our yard. It was a somewhat neglected area. Red Maples, being a pioneer species, are one of the first trees to move in. Most irregular landscapers dig up such trees every so often. But instead of putting the trees into the compost bag for the city to haul away, on a whim, I stuck them into some flower pots.
For the rest of Spring and Summer, I tried to see if I could keep them alive. I put them up on a bench, so varmints wouldn’t eat the roots, and I watered them every day or two. These little trees are nothing if not hardy (they’ll bounce back even after being run over by your lawnmower), and they thrived. Even after some minor scorching when we went on vacation, I enjoyed their miniature fall foliage.
Then, it was on. That Winter I watched endless YouTube videos, hunted some special wire and dirt and pots on Craigslist, and picked up my first few bonsai books. The next Spring, I potted up more little trees, gave my first batch a root prune, and began noting stylistic developments for future years.
Since then, I’ve added to my arsenal of little cutting tools and small pots. I spent a small fortune at the closest bonsai nursery. My father-in-law, an internationally noted urban forester, even got into the hobby, bringing me several specimens from his Tennessee wood lot. My Dad and I spent a mosquito-filled hour digging small pine trees from his swampland in southern Maine; I got a few conifers from the mountains near where we ski.
Results are still middling. Several of my early trees have died, likely due to my ongoing experiments. It’s a hobby of decades, so some of my survivors don’t look so great. One of them made for a very Charlie Brown stand-in Christmas tree the week before Thanksgiving. While a few are looking very fine, that’s not quite what I’m after: I like having a practical hobby. The results are very much not in my hands, but getting better at the different techniques is. As a hobby, bonsai is just fine: I spend time doing physical work, getting a little dirty in the process, and have hope of seeing results in the future. I’m not spending time online, consuming or creating “content,” but rather doing something that brings a bit of joy.
When you next come by the house, I’ll show you all the little trees in their cold frame for the winter.
I have two things for you to read this week: a nice New Yorker piece about bonsai culture and a quote from one of my bonsai books. Merry Christmas!