27 March 2024

The art of bonsai isn't as complicated as it might look

| James Coleman
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Arboretum bonsai

The National Bonsai and Penjing Collection at the Arboretum. Photo: Michelle Rowe.

You grow it in a small pot to keep it small, don’t you? Or you cut the roots?

The Japanese and Chinese art of growing and shaping miniature trees comes with its fair share of questions, and Leigh Taffe has heard them all. He’s been growing bonsai trees since he watched the Karate Kid as a teenager.

“It’s a bit weird to admit, but that movie spiked my interest in bonsai,” he says.

“Mum was also an avid gardener, and she encouraged me to get involved too. It’s an interest that’s quite addictive, not only from the creative side but also nurturing and growing a living organism.”

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There’s also the “sense of pride” from showing the tree to friends and family.

Leigh will be showing off Canberra’s collection of bonsais from 11 to 14 April as organiser for ‘Bonsai Reshaped’, a series of workshops held as part of this year’s Canberra and Region Heritage Festival.

Special guests Marija Hajdic from Croatia and Morten Albek from Denmark will also be on hand to answer questions and deliver talks.

The ‘National Bonsai and Penjing Collection of Australia’ is housed just outside the Arboretum’s visitor centre, and consists of 120 trees with about 75 on display at any one time.

National Bonsai and Penjing Collection of Australia

Even the fine detail makes it through into the miniatures. Photo: Michelle Rowe.

There’s a range of styles from modern to the more traditional as well as Australian native species, including the Banksia serrata and Eucalyptus camaldulensis.

When former Chief Minister John Stanhope pitched plans for the National Arboretum after the 2003 bushfires, Leigh was among a number of Canberrans who lobbied for a bonsai collection similar to the one at the arboretum in Washington, DC.

He says Canberra is among the “more active cities in Australia” for bonsai artists.

“We have quite a big bonsai club with over 300 members in the Canberra Bonsai Society. There’s no kind of commercial operators in Canberra – they’re all hobbyists, and a very active community.”

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The oldest tree in the collection is a box-leaf privet, dating back to 1880. It was one of a number of plants Leigh saved in 1983 from a hedge row on a NSW central coast property, set for demolition. It’d been kept small with constant trimming, so all Leigh had to do was chop it back to the stump, place it in a pot and restyle the branches with the help of wire or string.

Beyond that, care doesn’t differ much from a standard pot plant. Water when needed. Feed with fertiliser when needed. Trim when needed. And every two or three years, remove it from the pot, untangle and trim the roots, and put it back with fresh soil.

“Bonsai is an illusion,” Leigh says.

“The growth of the tree is not stunted. It’s controlled. You let the tree grow out a bit, and then come back and trim the new foliage to maintain the shape.”

The oldest tree in Canberra’s bonsai collection dates to 1880. Photo: Adam McGrath.

With this constant tender loving care, bonsais can reach thousands of years old, but fortunately for people who don’t live that long (and for the upcoming workshops), it doesn’t take that long to have a tree that looks like a bonsai.

“You just go to a plant nursery, find a bushy tree and basically cut a few branches off, style it and make it appear to be a big old tree, just in miniature.”

The beginner workshops at Bonsai Reshaped are sold out, but there are still spots available in the intermediate workshops.

The ‘Bonsai Market’ will offer everything you need to get started, with a range of handmade bonsai pots, tools, equipment, materials, stock trees and bonsai from a variety of interstate suppliers.

For $90 per person, ‘Bonsai After Dark’ on Friday 12 April will offer drinks and canapes and the opportunity to watch the international artists transform a stock tree into a styled bonsai live on stage.

Visit Bonsai Reshaped for more information.

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