Maine Gardener: Bonsai Requires Patience and Skill

Bonsai cultivation is complicated. It can take six years or more to create a bonsai from a tree purchased from a nursery or scavenged from the wild. But after all this work and time, some trees grow and die for no apparent reason.

In bonsai, an art originating in China over 1,000 years ago, trees that normally grow up to 100 feet tall are pruned and trained to grow in a container to a height of about 1 foot. These very neat miniature trees can sell for thousands of dollars.

Colin Lewis has written several bonsai books, judges national shows and is the owner of the Ho Yoku School of Bonsai in Biddeford Pool. He views his bonsai trees as works of art, not just dwarf plants, and his are valued that way as well.

“What you see at garden centers, fairs and malls is to bonsai what cartoon greeting cards are to fine art,” he said. He showed me a 6 inch pine he had just sold for $325.

Lewis works with temperate plants – any that can survive outdoors in Maine’s climate – although he protects most of his bonsai trees in an unheated greenhouse or unheated garage during the winter. Native plants that work particularly well are red spruce, balsam fir and tamaracks, he said, adding that tamaracks are now all the rage.

Bonsai is an art form for the patient gardener. Lewis has a potted yew in his garage that he took – with his permission – from a Kennebunkport lawn three years ago. Now that the yew has finally acclimated to its pot, it will spend the next three years training, pruning branches and pruning roots to create a bonsai tree.

The most important part in plant breeding is the trunk, Lewis said. With deciduous plants, he can cut off all the leaves and branches and new branches will sprout, which he can then form.

If he cuts all the branches from an evergreen, it will die, so he must instead shape some of the existing branches. Sometimes he will cut a branch almost completely to shape it. More than that, he said, and the tree would die.

Lewis has a hornbeam bonsai that was 6 feet tall when he brought it home. He cut the branches, hollowed out the trunk to make it look like it had been struck by lightning, and formed it into a striking little tree 12 inches tall.

Timing is everything, Lewis said. With a larch, there are only two weeks a year where you can prune the roots without killing the plant. For other varieties, he can prune the roots for four to six weeks.

You can reach Lewis, an Englishman who moved to the United States in 2001, at colinlewisbonsai.com.

Ernie Glabau of Entwood Bonsai in Burnham has been growing and selling bonsai trees since the 1990s. He is at the other end of the bonsai spectrum.

About 70% of the plants he works with are tropical, which won’t survive Maine’s winters, but can be displayed indoors year-round.

The tropical plants he most often uses to create bonsai are jade plants and ficus, temperate plants are pines and junipers. He typically charges $20 to $25 for his bonsai, he said, selling some on his farm but most of it at fairs and craft shows across the state.

In his experience, most people who have some sensitivity towards plants and are willing to read a little can deal with bonsai. But they have to expect some plants to die. “Anyone who grows bonsai gets used to killing a tree once in a while,” Glabau said.

Find information about Entwood Bonsai at uniquemainefarms.com/uniquemainefarms.com/Entwood_Bonsai.html.

Sue Howard from Scarborough has been taking lessons from Lewis and has been growing bonsai for about three years. She had scheduled an organizational meeting to form a bonsai club for today. But she canceled the meeting a few days ago for lack of response. She asked bonsai enthusiasts reading this story who are interested in forming a club to get in touch: [email protected] Lewis, for his part, hopes they will. A local club, he said, could bring more interest to what he sees as an underrated art form.

Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer who gardens in Cape Elizabeth and can be reached at 767-2297 or [email protected].


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