Cultivating a passion – Winnipeg Free Press
NEAR STE. GENEVIEVE — Twice a day, Joe Grande hops on his bike and pedals to the wooded alcove near the entrance to his long driveway. He could walk, but biking is the best way to “beat the mosquitoes”.
The clearing is surrounded by a lush stand of tall poplars, oaks and birches. Atop handmade tables and inside purpose-built shade structures, another forest thrives in miniature. The scene is intensely green.
Grande lights the hose attached to her rainwater harvesting system and begins to mist. Bonsai do best with a regular regimen of neutral water; what comes out of the tap contains too many chemicals and trace elements for small trees.
He started training his first bonsai 33 years ago and moved to the countryside a decade later, intending to build an outdoor workshop large enough to support the hobby.
With a collection of nearly 200 trees, hobby hardly seems the right word.
“Obsession?” he offers with a smile.
Previously, Grande and his wife lived in Wolseley, where he cared for around 40 bonsai trees in a small urban yard. The couple moved east in search of more space for their respective passions — he trains trees, she trains obedience dogs.
Annual Bonsai Show Winnipeg
Norwood Community Center, 87 Walmer St.
Saturday, noon to 7 p.m.
Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Visit bonsaiwinnipeg.ca for more information
A Japanese art form, bonsai involves keeping miniature trees to look like lifelike representations of their wild counterparts. It is art imitating nature.
There are three stages in bonsai: development, balance and refinement. Grande’s collection is in various stages of development; developing trees have been heavily pruned to encourage leaf and root growth, while those in balance are bound by wires directing the branches into position.
Refinement is exactly what it sounds like – taking care of the details and getting the thumbnails ready for display. In the final stage, water and fertilizers are often withheld to prevent unplanned growth.
For the uninitiated, this can all seem quite violent. From Grande’s perspective, this is an improvement over the forces acting on a tree in the wild.
“There are diseases, insects, lightning, we cut them down for furniture and to build houses,” he says. “A bonsai in a pot, properly cared for, will outlive its natural lifespan.”
Grande is gentle with a calm demeanor – zen, if you will. His silent dedication is expressed through a wealth of knowledge about the art form and every tree in his possession. Choose an individual and he will be able to indicate the genus as well as the date and place of its harvest.
Don’t ask him to choose his favorites. “How does a parent choose their favorite child? ” he asks.
While describing the nuances of bonsai, he zigzags around the yard, pointing to examples of different patterns, settings, and techniques. He doesn’t have a favorite tree, but he does have preferences.
“Here I’ll show you,” he says, when asked about his favorite style. “It’s a literate bonsai and it’s characterized by a trunk that has little or no taper and a lot of undulating movement – it’s reminiscent of Chinese calligraphy.”
The evergreen tree stands about a meter tall, with little foliage and a slender trunk swooping down in a dramatic curl. There are trees growing at extreme angles, cascading from their pots and carried away by an unseen wind. A trio of tiny larch trees cling to a large mossy boulder, evoking the landscape of the Canadian Shield. Grande’s creations are based on established bonsai traditions and inspired by the chaos of nature. Some limbs and trunks are carved to look like they have been broken or ravaged by rot.
“As an artist, you have to be brave,” he says. “Be prepared to follow the guidelines, but break the rules.”
Larch is Grande’s favorite species (much like those found in the northern boreal forest, the bonsai versions also turn golden in the fall), followed by eastern cedar and potentilla, a compact flowering shrub. It is a common misconception that only certain types of trees, grown indoors, can be considered bonsai. Aside from the stipulation that they must be grown in a shallow pot, virtually any plant can be made into a pint-sized replica.
With the exception of a few tropical species, most of Grande’s trees live outdoors year-round. It collects stunted greens and saplings from bogs and scrub in Manitoba. Since the species are native to the region, they are well equipped to weather the prairie seasons.
Growing outdoors comes with its own set of challenges. Insects are a constant concern, and hungry deer and squirrels have destroyed a number of treetops.
“It sets me back four years every time they do that,” Grande says. “You cry a lot in bonsai.”
This grief is one of the reasons he has so many trees. Having a large collection makes room for inevitable failures and allows for constant fiddling. Bonsai is a long game – the trees must be trained in position for years before giving in to their stylized fate. Do too much too soon and the tree could die.
Grande, 75, is a semi-retired graphic designer. While the horticultural side of bonsai attracts him, trees have been part of his life since birth; his childhood home in Italy had a vast orchard – the vibrant artistry is what fuels the obsession.
“It’s just me, the tree and Mother Nature,” he says. “I saw it as a relationship I could gravitate toward.”
In many ways bonsai is a lonely quest. However, like any niche interest, there is a large community around the practice.
In the center of her black baseball cap, Grande wears a small gold pin. It is a souvenir from one of the World Expos he visited as an active member of Bonsai Clubs International. While his interest in the hobby was piqued in 1984 after watching The Karate Kidit wasn’t until he joined the local Winnipeg Bonsai Club in 1989 that he began to cultivate his passion in earnest.
Club president Scott Samson has a similar bonsai story.
“Seeing Mr. Miyagi farting with tiny little trees and cultivating them was what gave me the bug back then,” says Samson, who has worked with bonsai for 15 years.
Today he has 40 trees in formation in the backyard of his home in North Kildonan. At first, he and his brother tried playing with greenery purchased from a nursery, but had little success until they joined Bonsai Winnipeg.
“It’s a pretty deep craft,” he says. “So we decided to find out more about how to do this thing so that we’re not just torturing and killing small trees.”
Still, the learning curve was steep.
“For the first eight years, I had the reputation of killing more trees than anyone in the history of our club,” Samson laughs. “I would bring (a tree) home and wire every branch, cut off all the foliage and repot it – you do it twice, and the tree isn’t strong enough to live on.”
He learned a lot about patience through trial and error and through mentorship from fellow club members, including Grande.
Bonsai Winnipeg holds monthly meetings, weekend workshops and introductory courses for beginners. Each spring and fall, members are invited on a field trip to dig up native trees and this weekend the club hosts its annual show, which gives local practitioners the opportunity to display their trees and share the art form with the public.
Local interest in bonsai has recently exploded. The club currently has around 120 members, up from 30 a few years ago. Samson credits the growth to an enthusiastic board, effective outreach, and the COVID-19 pandemic, which has seen many people try new activities from home.
Shannon Block joined the club this year after attending the 20-hour Introduction to Bonsai course over several weekends.
“Oh my God, you’re learning a lot,” she said. “I’ve only scratched the surface. There is so much more to know, and I left delighted to learn more and reconnect with the people I met during the course.
Block is an avid gardener who has a house full of plants and a yard full of flowers and vegetables on her half-acre property in West Saint Paul. Bonsai seemed like a good opportunity to flex his already very green thumbs.
At the end of the Bonsai Winnipeg course, she received two trees to take home and practice. Block is happy to report that both survived the season and she has already added three more to her collection. The bonsai bug takes root quickly.
“It was hard for me not to want to do more for my tree,” she says. “And that’s what makes you want to go find another tree or another bush or other plants to start working on.”
Block is thrilled to have one of her trees on display at this weekend’s show at the Norwood Community Center. Samson will display 10 of his trees, while Grande plans to load 14 of his bonsai trees into his “tree transporter” – a silver Volkswagen van – and transport them to Winnipeg.
The expo is a chance to share knowledge, celebrate incremental progress, and connect with like-minded people.
“Everyone has something to tell you about what they did to their tree, or how they got into it, or what they hope for that tree in a few years,” Samson says. “It’s quite exciting.”