Photo by Nancy Adams
BY Nancy Adams, Mobile County Master Gardener / mobilecountymastergardeners.org
When Joe Day was in elementary school, his father subscribed to Popular Science and Popular Mechanics, magazines in which Joe saw articles on bonsai, the art of growing trees in containers. It’s a combination word loosely translated as “tree in a tray”.
Joe found them interesting. Later he read an article in Time Life magazine giving detailed instructions and decided to give it a try. In personal interviews and notes, Joe shared information about his lifelong involvement with bonsai.
Spread over a large back yard in West Mobile is a combined bonsai display, bonsai garden, and Asian vegetable garden. Both gardens and the exhibition area are the work of Joe and his wife, Xuan (pronounced soon), whom Joe met when they both worked for the US Army in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s Returning to the United States in 1972, they bought their house in 1973 and have since spent most of their free time working in the large yard and gardens, while raising two children.
The Asian vegetable garden allows Joe and Xuan to enjoy all the Vietnamese and Asian dishes that require spices and fresh vegetables often unavailable in local food markets. Growing trees and shrubs to create bonsai trees is the result of Joe’s desire to find an artistic outlet that doesn’t require a dedicated indoor space and, more importantly, allows him to be outdoors.
Xuan and their children, Thashia and Joe Allen, have been a constant source of help over the years in building and maintaining the bonsai collection. Watering is an important part of the process; it includes daily bonsai health inspection. Sudden temperature changes and frequent thunderstorms sometimes require family or friends to help with bonsai health and well-being.
Bonsai generally grow and stay healthy outdoors in bright or lightly shaded areas. It is not just one species of plant, and many local landscapes and native plants are used to create beautiful bonsai trees.
Creating bonsai requires a thorough knowledge of the horticultural needs of the plant species the artist is working with and a good understanding of artistic design. The design chosen should allow the tree to grow so that it remains healthy, as it can take 15 to 25 years to create a mature bonsai specimen. Depending on the growth rate of certain trees and shrubs, bonsai can be created in less time, but nothing in the design work makes it grow slower. Design work and good horticultural practices of pruning growth, maintaining healthy roots in a good soil mix, and a fertilizing routine all work together to create a bonsai tree.
Understanding the local rhythm of climate and growing season, knowing how much fertilizer to use, and knowing how to prune the species helps maintain bonsai in the desired design for many years. Some of the bonsai created by Joe are now 50 years old; many are over 30 years old.
Joe learned the art of bonsai through trial and error, from local bonsai artists, visiting bonsai artists from around the world, books and magazines, and more recently the internet. He has taught bonsai at most bonsai societies in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and Louisiana for the past 40 years and has written articles for numerous bonsai magazines, local publications and chapters. of bonsai books, and has made television and radio appearances. .
Joe has found that the increasing information found online and in publications often relates to a climate quite different from that of the Gulf Coast. The best way to learn how to create bonsai is from a local bonsai artist who understands which species will live in a container for an extended period of time. Internet research, books and magazines are good resources for bonsai design.
The local bonsai association is the Azalea City Bonsai Society. You are invited to meetings, which are open to the public, at 6:30 p.m. on the first Tuesday of each month at the Japanese Garden at 700 Forest Hill Drive. For more information, contact Joe Day at [email protected].
Garden opportunities for your calendar
What: Azalea City Bonsai Society meetings
When: First Tuesday of each month at 6:30 p.m.
Where: Mobile Japanese Garden, 700 Forest Hill Drive
More information: [email protected]
What: Visit the Mobile Botanical Gardens
When: Wednesday to Sunday (check website for times and prices)
Where: 5151 Museum Drive
Lunch: Book on Wednesdays and Fridays
More information: MobileBotanicalGardens.org
What: Visit Bellingrath Gardens
When: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily
Where: 12401 Bellingrath Gardens Road, Theodore
More information: Bellingrath.org
What: Enjoy the mobile Japanese garden
When: Daily, during daylight hours
Where: 700 Forest Hill Drive
Price: Free, but donations requested
More information: MobileJapaneseGarden.com