It was whilst on honeymoon in Japan in 2006 I first fell in love with Japanese strolling gardens and, in particular admired the perfect yet miniature trees – bonsai, although it wasn’t until visiting Harlow Carr some ten years later I discovered the local bonsai group and took up the hobby for myself.
While bonsai are commonly associated with Japan, the art originated in China and is now popular all over the world. Bonsai which simply means ‘container grown’ is a mixture of horticulture and art.
The art form extends to the shape of the trunk and branches, the display of roots and the shape and colour of the pot. Styles include trees grown over rocks, windswept and cascade trying to capture tree’s as they grow in the wild. The object is not to make the tree look like a bonsai, but to make the bonsai look like a tree.
Bonsai is called a living art as each season brings something new from spring blossom, summer fruits to autumn berries and the changing colour of the leaves. Even in the depths of winter, the bare branches have a certain beauty. The Harlow Carr bonsai group is run by volunteers and we meet regularly throughout the year. They are working meetings where you take your own trees, other members are always willing to give advice and for me, a much-needed helping hand. As a hobby it’s really accessible to everyone, I mainly cultivate the saplings which spring up in my own garden, I discovered a sycamore which had been growing inside an old tree stump for years, it took quite a while to cut it out and now the tree has a very oddly shaped trunk but a good story to match.
Mature bonsai trees are highly sought after by collectors, with the most expensive bonsai ever sold, an 800-year-old pine tree, reaching $1.3m. However, most growers aren’t interested in selling their trees – in a strange way they feel a bit like old friends.
With a hectic work and family life I have never been able to sit still long enough to meditate yet working on the trees requires you to slow down and take notice of the smallest detail, it absorbs my mind and has a very calming effect – an hour can pass very easily in the peace of the garden. Bonsai is also a great lesson in patience. You need to have a vision of what you want the tree to look like in 10 or even 20 years’ time and keep working towards that.
It is said that it takes a lifetime to master the art of bonsai, after all in five years you only see spring five times, so I am still very much the apprentice with a lot to learn.