“Cut it here,” he said. I was working at the family business, a retail nursery in Alameda, California. It was 1993. A man I had not met before was offering me pruning advice, and the advice was good. “Cut it here,” he said again, pointing to another branch.
The man had a long name – Boonyarat Manakitivipart. I knew him as Boon. Boon often found me in the back of the nursery, pruning or nursing unwell trees back to health. Originally from Thailand, Boon was an ornamental tree pruner who’d recently moved to the area from San Francisco.
One day he pointed to a neglected bonsai at the nursery, a Japanese black pine, and offered to style the tree. “Style the tree?” my father asked. “Wire and prune the tree, make it pretty,” Boon said. That didn’t clear anything up, but my dad said OK.
A week later Boon returned with the tree. He had dramatically thinned it and wired the remaining branches into a curious shape. I can’t say I liked the tree, but something about it intrigued me.
Over time I got to know Boon. His passion was bonsai. Would I be interested in coming with him to a bonsai club meeting? It hadn’t occurred to me that there were clubs for these things. I said yes out of curiosity, and the next week we visited Merritt Bonsai Club.
It wasn’t what I expected. We showed up late and walked in on a heated discussion. More of a tirade, really. A club member was taking the club president to task for not doing more to engage the bonsai community. Meanwhile, club members sat at tables quietly working on their trees. Boon and I found an open table and joined in.
Around that time, Kathy Shaner began teaching a class in Boon’s backyard. I couldn’t afford the class and lacked the trees to work on, but I attended each month to help out and learn what I could. It was at these workshops that I began to learn about bonsai in Japan.
Five years later, I had the opportunity to visit Japan with Boon, Morten Wellhaven and Randall Lee. It was an incredible trip and the trees were beautiful.
That’s how I “got into bonsai,” but it’s not the whole story. It may have started earlier.
Before they dated, when my parents were still in school, my father gave my mother a bonsai, a Japanese plum.
I was surrounded by bonsai in my parents garden before I knew what they were. Most sat on the ground in wooden containers built by my father. By the time I was old enough to notice, only the plum remained. The tree was in the backyard throughout my childhood so I grew up knowing what bonsai was, but I didn’t give it much thought to it until I saw the pine that Boon had styled.
Winter, 1994, I found myself at Boon’s kitchen table planting pine seeds. By then I’d joined a club and browsed some bonsai magazines, but the bulk of my bonsai knowledge was limited to plant care I’d learned at the nursery. Boon, too, was fairly new to developing bonsai from seed. Our primary guide was a pair of articles in Bonsai Today – it was a good starting point.
I spent that summer in Greece and Turkey. I’d cut off the seedlings’ taproots before leaving and worried they might not make it. I remember calling home and asking about the pine seedlings. My mom had offered to water while I was away. They were doing well.
My collection grew while the pines matured. I learned about wiring and repotting, cutback and display. I visited local shows and returned to Japan. Along the way I sold a few pines to friends.
I am fortunate to have grown up in a nursery family and to have learned so much from my father. I am lucky, and grateful, to have received guidance from Boon, Morten and Kathy from the very beginning. Without these starting points, I wouldn’t be writing this.
And then there are the pines. I owe much to planting them when I did. From them, I’ve learned to appreciate the subtle growth characteristics that vary from tree to tree. I’ve learned how present actions affect future growth and I’ve enjoyed seeing the trees develop over time. I’ve been able to experiment with different approaches to common problems, and I’ve learned from seeing friends work on similar trees they developed themselves.
I took a writing class with Maxine Hong Kingston in college. After suffering great loss in a fire, she noted that all she had left were the items she’d given away. The sentiment has stuck with me, and to this day, I really enjoy seeing trees I helped start in friends’ collections. I like that I don’t know exactly how the trees have taken their present shape, and I like that I don’t know what’s going to happen next.
Japanese plum, 1976
Bonsai display by Boon Manakitivipart and Morten Wellhaven, mid 1990s
Boon at Takeyama’s garden in Omiya
With Yosuke Omizu at the Green Club, Tokyo, 1999
Meeting Daisaku Nomoto at Kihachi-en in Anjo
My first batch of pines, late 1990s
One of the above pines as displayed in 2010
One of the above pines as displayed in 2014
Another pine from the same batch – developed in a friends’ collection for the past 10 years
The next batch – 1-year old pine seedlings, 2005
Two months ago, Felix Laughlin, President of the National Bonsai Foundation, requested tips for how to fill a tea bag with fertilizer quickly. The process does seem to take a while, but I’ve found I can fill about 9 bags per minute with the following approach.
The most important thing is setting up everything within easy reach – tea bags (flap side up), fertilizer and scoop. From there there’s not too much to it.
The basic setup – the fertilizer here is E.B. Stone’s Starter Food, 4-6-2
I start by picking up a bag by the flap.
Picking up the bag
Gently folding the bag opens it.
Next the fertilizer goes in.
Filling the bag about 2/3 – 3/4 full
Under filling the bag can work when only a little is needed; over-filling the bag makes it difficult to close the flap.
Tea bag filled with fertilizer
I close the bag by tucking my thumbs into the flap.
Starting with the thumbs
Next I pinch the top of the flap with my index fingers.
Pinching the flap
From there I can quickly close the bag.
Bag ready for use
I usually keep a second container nearby so I don’t have to move around much between bags.
One down, many to go.
Here’s the process in real-life action.
Hope this helps!
I recently had the opportunity to work on some trees with Matt Reel. Matt hails from Portland, Oregon, and is a member of the Portland Bonsai Village. For eight years, he apprenticed with Shinji Suzuki. These days he can be found working on client trees, teaching classes and leading demonstrations across the country.
I met Matt in 2009 at the Taikan Bonsai Museum in Obuse, Japan, and was impressed with his work. It was a treat to finally work with him after so many years.
What I most appreciate about working with experienced professionals is their eye for seeing potential in bonsai. Matt helped out by working on a few of my trees and providing guidance aimed at pointing the trees towards brighter futures. I’m happy with the results!
Preparing a branch to be bent
Wiring young branches
Ume – before cutback and wiring
After cutback and wiring
Finding the front on a young black pine
If you’re interested in working with Matt or seeing more of his work, check out his website – try the post “Autumn Displays for Taikan-ten” for starters – or get in touch with him directly at matthewj dot reel at gmail dot com.
I remember one of the first times I flipped through Kindai Bonsai, the Japanese bonsai magazine. Not being able to read a word of Japanese, I studied the photos. What struck me was how similar the black pines looked. I’d grown up with an appreciation of pines and could see that they were different, but not different in ways I found meaningful.
Years later, I found it easier to recognize and appreciate the subtle, and not so subtle, differences between them.
Black pines displayed at the 2011 Gomangoku exhibit in Okazaki, Japan
This memory came back to me when I browsed through photos of the 2015 ABFF event in Ho Chi Minh City. I found that many of the wrightia looked similar and that the differences between them were not meaningful to me the way differences between pines now are. I’m curious if with greater familiarity I’ll achieve greater understanding and appreciation of the trees. Only time will tell.
Wrightia photos courtesy Trung Hồ Hương – thanks again Trung!