Bonsai Tips From an Atlanta Master

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Translated from Japanese, bonsai simply means a tree in a pot. However, the techniques used to grow such a plant are a bit more complex. “Bonsai is the art of making a tree look older,” says Rodney Clemons, nationally respected bonsai master and teacher at Stone Mountain. Each planting tells nature’s story in miniature, evoking living oak trees twisted by ocean winds or maple trees reaching skyward through snowdrifts.

Tropical varieties are best suited indoors, but native species are often easier to grow, Clemons notes. Evergreens are the most conventional, but deciduous trees make great bonsai trees, especially when their leaves change color in the fall.

Smith-Gilbert Gardens in Kennesaw, a 16-acre public botanical garden, features one of the region’s best bonsai collections, renovated this year. (Clemons manages both Smith-Gilbert and a garden at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers.)

Although big box retailers may sell bonsai (aka “con-sai”), Clemons recommends purchasing plants from specialty nurseries such as Monastery of the Holy Spirit, Full Moon Bonsai in Marietta, Plant City Bonsai in Clermont or Allgood Bonsai from Clemons. at Stone Mountain.

You can find small bonsai trees for as low as $25, but Clemons says beginners should opt for more established trees 12 to 18 inches tall (usually $75 to $125). Ficus and juniper are two varieties that are relatively easy to grow, he says.

Bonsai is 80 to 90 percent horticulture, and the rest is art and technique, Clemons says. The practice teaches how plants feed, grow and respond to climate.

Contrary to popular belief, bonsai trees are not always dwarf specimens. They are often regular species trained to produce small leaves by techniques such as manual defoliation and timely pruning of branches and roots. Many trees and shrubs can be trained, even magnolias, oaks and azaleas. Amazingly, tiny fruit trees will produce full-sized flowers and fruit: a 12-inch-tall apple tree will produce full-sized apples.

To be involved: Atlanta Bonsai Society has flourished since 1963 and offers many opportunities for bonsai studies, performances and workshops. Find the company at JapanFest at the Gwinnett Center on September 19-20.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of HOUSE of Atlanta Magazine.

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