The Columbus Bonsai Society turns 50 – 614NOW

About 30 years ago, Mark Passerrello attended his first meeting of the Columbus Bonsai Society. As the club was made up mostly of older men, Passerrello wasn’t sure they would accept his youth, pierced ears, and long hair.

Luckily for him, bonsai is for everyone.

Now president of the company, Passerrello not only wants to educate others in the art of bonsai, but also open the practice to a wider audience in Columbus.

“Community is an important word for me,” he said. “The idea is to make society more welcoming. When I go to bonsai events most of the time I see guys like me – thick in the middle with gray beards – but we also have a few women on the board and more young people getting involved every day .

Although it’s the same club he first joined 30 years ago, Passarrello says it’s even better now.

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Passerrello has always been a plant lover, but he also has a real interest in Japanese culture and arts.

Bonsai is an art form derived from ancient Chinese horticulture and developed in Japan. By definition, bonsai is a potted plant pruned and manipulated into a creative and desired shape. The practice requires skill, technique and a lot of patience.

Contrary to popular belief, a bonsai or plant is not a species. Passerrello said many people use bonsai as a verb as well as a noun, which means you can bonsai almost any plant in a small container and make it look mature.

“Bonsai is a collection of techniques and mindsets,” Passerrello said. “You can turn most living plants into bonsai. You can take something like boxwood[a] and junipers or a ficus, and you can make a bonsai from it quite easily.

Passerrello became fascinated with bonsai when he and his college sweetheart lived in a studio apartment in Miami.

“We fantasized [about] what we would do if we had more space once we got out of school and settled down,” he said. “That’s when I discovered bonsai and started reading library books about it.”

A year later, after moving to Columbus, Passerrello ordered some plants and all the supplies needed to start a bonsai garden. He then saw an article in the Columbus Bonsai Society journal and called them to see exactly how he could get involved.

Thirty and a half years and a dozen board positions later, Passerrello is the company’s president.

“Our mission is to be an educational organization and to promote the art and craft of bonsai,” he said. “We welcome guest artists, talk about a range of topics, discuss techniques and give presentations.”

The club generally meets on the third Sunday of each month at the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. But the group is present at tons of other events such as native plant sales, workshops, the annual cherry blossom festival, and more. Each spring, the company participates in Arbor Day events in the tri-state area. On September 24, the group will celebrate its 50th anniversary at the Dawes Arboretum.

Bonsai is quite popular these days and can be found at most big box garden stores. Passerrello advised those who want to start their own bonsai to be careful with the plants and supplies they choose.

“One way to start is to buy something cheap and keep it alive, which is already a challenge,” he said. “You can then shape it and use techniques to turn it into a bonsai.”

Local plant sales and conservatories are great assets to get you started. It’s important to start with a shallow pot that’s large enough to hold not only the plant but also any additional decor in the miniature landscape. No matter what type of plant you have, when you remove it from its nursery container to transplant it into a new pot, cut off the bottom two-thirds of the root ball. Then rake the surface of the soil to expose some roots. Moisten everything with a spray bottle.

Caring for a bonsai requires different techniques and levels of attention. You will need to remove dead branches and temporarily wrap the wire around the pieces you wish to manipulate. Water only when the soil is dry and fertilize from early spring to mid-fall.

“Bonsai is one way of looking at it,” Passerrello said. “It’s a way of growing and a way of seeing.”

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