This banker has 550 trees on his terrace!

MAngat Singh Thakur, an 80-year-old retired banker from Rohini, Delhi, was in his 40s when bonsai was first introduced to India in the late 1970s.

This, he notes, was thanks to the efforts of Nikunj and Jyoti Parekh, who founded the Bonsai Study Group of the Indo-Japanese Association. A few years later, he says, Dr. Leila Dhanda popularized the art form in the capital by founding the Indian Bonsai Association. “And I was lucky enough to come across a group of women who worked for her, in a vegetable garden that I frequented,” he says.

“I didn’t even know what a bonsai was at the time, and oddly enough, they didn’t really have a clue either. However, they walked me through the basics and I attended my first workshop at the (ITC) Maurya Sheraton soon after. I come from very humble beginnings and was hesitant to even enter the hotel premises. But as I learned more about how to grow bonsai at home, I only became more interested in the art,” he adds.

Despite his inclinations, Mangat’s work and family responsibilities kept him busy until 2001. Then, as a retired man, he was finally able to devote most of his days to perfecting a green thumb and cultivates currently up to 550 bonsai trees on its roof. terrace in Rohini.

“About 35 years ago, I potted my first bonsai, a banyan tree. I still have it today. In the early years, I spent hours meditating on books on bonsai techniques. But of the dozens of books available in my neighborhood libraries, only a few were written in Hindi. I decided that if I ever had the chance, I would write one myself. And now I am, ”says Mangat The best India.

Since 2019, he has also been sharing detailed video tutorials on growing and caring for the exotic plant on Bonsai Factory, his YouTube channel with nearly 9,000 subscribers.

“For the past few years, my main focus has been to bring bonsai techniques to the common man across the country. If we introduce it to marginalized farmers in rural and remote areas, they can make good use of their existing land and resources to establish a highly profitable model. With my videos, [I hope] they can at least discover that they have the possibility to do it and find out how to start,” he adds.

Although Mangat has finished writing his book, he says the accompanying photographs and illustrations are not yet complete, adding that he is planning a release in April next year.

“More a work of art than hard work”

“The best thing about growing bonsai is that you don’t need any special seeds to start with. You can use any plant that has the ability to grow into a tree,” he notes. Here, ‘bon’ means ‘plateau’ and ‘sai’ means ‘tree’, so it is not a separate species, but rather a miniature form of a larger tree. Yet, I find it really fascinating that the fruit of bonsai is the same size as a tree.

“People often make growing bonsai a time-consuming and expensive affair. But it’s more of a work of art than hard work. If you spend time understanding the basics of feeding a bonsai tree, you can make one easily and ensure that it will survive for decades,” he says.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Mangat has also started taking online courses to raise awareness of bonsai cultivation techniques. He says the sessions are priced at Rs 5,000 per participant for a 15-day batch, and they focus only on theoretical concepts for the first 10.

“Even a doctor spends two-thirds of his life buried in books. I don’t claim to be able to make anyone master the subject in two weeks, but enough is learned to pursue it with consideration. I have taught over 150 people so far, from high school students to managers, pilots and engineers. I am proud to do this work at 80 years old,” he shares.

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How to make bonsai soil:

Mangat points out that the first thing to keep in mind when growing bonsai trees is that their maximum height is only three feet. “They are grown in a confined space and in limited soil, so their roots don’t spread like large trees and require more nutrition through the soil,” he says.

“There are a lot of things to consider when preparing the soil. It should be light, but rich in nutrients at the same time,” says Mangat. “For this you can combine 15% nursery soil, 10% manure, 3% neem cake fertilizer, 4-5% chalk, 10% pit sand (badarpur), 5% brick chunks, 5% raw charcoal chunks, 2% ash-based fertilizer, 10% coir dust, 10% bone meal and 15% dry leaves. You can also add a few pieces of rotten wood to spice up the mix.

After mixing these ingredients well, Mangat says, you have to pass the mixture through three types of sieves with different sizes of holes. “After straining the potting mix through the first sieve, any large stones or twigs that remain should be kept separately in a plastic container. This is the first type of soil,” he adds.

After filtering the remaining soil, pass it through the second sieve. Remove the soil that remains in this sieve and store it in another container – this is the second type of soil.

Now the soil you get after sieving through the second sieve should be sieved through the third sieve. Soil that does not filter through the third sieve is the third type of soil. After filtering, the remaining fine soil is the fourth type of soil.

Soils should not be stored in polythene, but rather collected in separate utensils or containers and dried in the sun. “We need thick clay for bonsai. If we keep its floor in polyethylene, then moisture gets in and the floor begins to break. One should also avoid mixing any type of chemicals into the bonsai soil, as this will shorten its lifespan,” Mangat explains.

Before planting bonsai in a pot, you must first put the “thick soil” – the first type of soil. After that, the second type of soil should be added, then the third, and the layers should be pressed tightly with your hands. Do not completely fill the jar.

Now place the bonsai there. Add more soil and press it down using any wood. Now place the bonsai in a tub or bucket filled with water. After leaving it in water for three to four hours, place the bonsai in a shady spot.

Other bonsai care tips:

  • Mangat says that watering bonsai trees is also a work of art. You cannot add as much water to it as other trees. Keep in mind that you are giving water in such a way that it does not stay in the pot at all. Bonsai roots are small, and if there is stagnation of water in the pot, the roots start to get damaged, he notes.
  • Avoid giving any type of chemical fertilizer; it is recommended to use only organic manure in bonsai.
  • Don’t apply too much fertilizer at one time. You can apply small amounts of manure at weekly intervals per month, three to four times. It makes bonsai healthier.
  • The wires are used to make bonsai. Therefore, you should also keep checking if a wire periodically damages the bonsai. If you feel the wire is cutting the bonsai, you can remove the wire and restructure it again.
  • Bonsai need to be pruned and “repotted” regularly, says Mangat.
  • After you start repotting, you don’t need to fertilize the bonsai for about a month, he adds. Then you can give the plant liquid manure, only in the evening. In addition to the roots, the bonsai leaves should also be sprayed.

For more information, you can follow Bonsai Factory.

You can read this story in Hindi here.

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