Bonsai garden

Super Mini: The Great Big World of Bonsai

Photo by Ryan Benoit

A bland bedroom patio and an impulse buy were the two things that conspired, 16 years ago, to initiate Barry Levine into the practice of bonsai. This was while he was still a bachelor living in Brentwood.

“The patio had nothing on it but a chair and a table. I would go out there after work to unwind [and think], ‘This is so bare, I need a plant or something.’ So I put this little plant down. And every day I enjoyed taking off the dead leaves. But I couldn’t do something with it every single day, so I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll get another one.’ I went back to the store and saw on the counter they had those little Christmas-gift bonsai—”

And the rest was history, right?!

“I bought it,” he said. “And of course it died like all the other ones do.”

But the habit stuck. (More on those mass-produced bonsai in a moment.) Now Levine maintains a collection of about 30 bonsai that includes miniature, meticulously tended juniper, Japanese black pine, flowering pomegranate, bougainvillea and Chinese ivy. He’s been a member of the San Diego Bonsai Club for the past 12 years, growing, pruning and transplanting under the guidance of bonsai master Fred Miyahara.

The thousand-year-old art of bonsai is one full of contradictions. Its goal is to cultivate an impossibly compact tree (of any number of species) that’s in harmony with certain principals of proportion, symmetry and asymmetry. The upshot is a tree that looks like it’s endured centuries of abusive wind and snow and storms — by dint of being diligently nurtured by human hands.

Below, Barry, 41, introduces us to these teacup tempests. He also shares the theory behind good bonsai, names a few misconceptions, and tells us about a legendary specimen that sold for a cool million.

Barry shows off a graceful Japanese black pine. A blend of art and horticulture, bonsai is a delicate dance of proportions. There are ideal ratios for trunk width to tree height, for example. Everything, Barry says, “should taper from wide to narrow. Coarse to fine, thick to thin. The apex of the tree should be the thinnest part of the tree.”

Barry shows off a graceful Japanese black pine. A blend of art and horticulture, bonsai is a delicate dance of proportions. There are ideal ratios for trunk width to tree height, for example. Everything, Barry says, “should taper from wide to narrow. Coarse to fine, thick to thin. The apex of the tree should be the thinnest part of the tree.”

He now lives in San Diego, sharing his house and bay views with his wife Ciara, kids Lilly and Benjamin, and yellow Labrador Kiko.

“Trees naturally want to grow straight up to the light, and look like a lollipop — a perfect stick with a big bushy ball on top, which is not very interesting at all. If I never touched this tree, the top would grow crazy out here in the sun. And because the older branches would be in the shade, they would die.”

“With bonsai, what you really want is a scalene triangle, where no three sides are the same length. The first branch is the oldest; it sticks the farthest out on the tree, and it should be the lowest."

“With bonsai, what you really want is a scalene triangle, where no three sides are the same length. The first branch is the oldest; it sticks the farthest out on the tree, and it should be the lowest.”

Barry also surfs, snowboards and home-brews. When he first walked into the San Diego Bonsai Club 12 years ago, he was the youngest member there by decades. “The majority of the members at that time were in their sixties and seventies,” he says. “Now they have a few younger members, though.” The next meeting is on Sunday, April 14, at Balboa Park. The monthly gatherings include demonstrations, advice-giving, and raffles of impressive specimens.

“What you’re trying to do is discourage the growth up here and encourage it here down below, so that the lower branches stay really full and mature — and up at the top, the tree is a little younger and spindlier. It doesn’t happen naturally. A lot of what you’re doing in bonsai is you’re trying to create something natural by forcing the tree to do what it doesn’t want to do.”

This flowering pomegranate bonsai actually produced one lone fruit, about the size of a jumbo egg. “The flowers get smaller and smaller as you keep cutting them off. In Japan when you show a fruiting tree — because the fruit will sap so much strength from the tree — what they do is let the fruit grow a little bit and they cut the fruit off. Then they’ll take a tiny wire and wire it back onto the branch.”

This flowering pomegranate bonsai actually produced one lone fruit, about the size of a jumbo egg. “The flowers get smaller and smaller as you keep cutting them off. In Japan when you show a fruiting tree — because the fruit will sap so much strength from the tree — what they do is let the fruit grow a little bit and they cut the fruit off. Then they’ll take a tiny wire and wire it back onto the branch.”

In the bonsai world, Japanese black pine (near left) is considered “king” and juniper (right) is considered the “queen.” “The reason they call Japanese black pine ‘the king,’ ” Barry says, “is that it’s so much harder than any other to make bonsai — because it doesn’t like to be cut. The others are like shrubs, so they don’t mind being cut.”

“Most of the junipers and pine can take full sunlight. As long as they have a reasonable amount of water, as bright as you can get.” He waters his trees twice a day in the summer, once every two days in the winter. In the earliest stages, a bonsai-to-be is grown in a large pot because “you’re pushing the tree to grow really, really fast, grow like crazy until you get it to where you want it. Then you slow it down to almost stop it.”

“Most of the junipers and pine can take full sunlight. As long as they have a reasonable amount of water, as bright as you can get.” He waters his trees twice a day in the summer, once every two days in the winter. In the earliest stages, a bonsai-to-be is grown in a large pot because “you’re pushing the tree to grow really, really fast, grow like crazy until you get it to where you want it. Then you slow it down to almost stop it.”

“This one just wanted to keep growing straight up. The needles are very long here. I’ll remove all but the last three sets of needles. One by one, with tweezers, until all there’s left are three pairs of needles. So there will still be needles to attract the sunlight, but fewer so that light can get into the spaces.”

“This one just wanted to keep growing straight up. The needles are very long here. I’ll remove all but the last three sets of needles. One by one, with tweezers, until all there’s left are three pairs of needles. So there will still be needles to attract the sunlight, but fewer so that light can get into the spaces.”

Once your bonsai is in the shape you want it, then what? “I don’t want to ruin the image that I’ve worked so hard to get to. Now I want to put it in a shallow pot so that it’s growing, but it’s not growing fast. It’s almost maintaining, it’s like treading water. It still has to grow, it still has to be fed, but I don’t want to encourage it to have a branch just shoot out.” Here, he shows us a successful juniper.

Once your bonsai is in the shape you want it, then what? “I don’t want to ruin the image that I’ve worked so hard to get to. Now I want to put it in a shallow pot so that it’s growing, but it’s not growing fast. It’s almost maintaining, it’s like treading water. It still has to grow, it still has to be fed, but I don’t want to encourage it to have a branch just shoot out.” Here, he shows us a successful juniper.

It helps to have a clean background while pruning, to get a sense of negative space.

It helps to have a clean background while pruning, to get a sense of negative space.

To start your own bonsai practice, there are a few places you can go: “You can go to the forest to dig it up. That’s called yamadori, wild grown. It’s the most natural way, and the hardest because first you need permission to dig it up and know where to find it. And it’s rooted in the earth. I’ve only done it once or twice. Once it worked.”

You can also go to a regular plant nursery, select a tree and start from the beginning. Maples, figs, pomegranate, juniper, elms and pines are all commonly used in bonsai. You could also go to a dedicated bonsai nursery, where, Barry says, “they’ve started the process for you, and you can come in midway. Depending on how much money you want to spend, you can get a finished tree if you want or you could buy it in the middle range and you take it to the end. House of Bonsai in Orange County is really, really good. I mean it’s like fields and fields and fields of trees — you can’t even imagine.”

Finally, you can make a bonsai by grafting it, cutting a little piece off an established tree and sticking it in the dirt. Barry’s bougainvillea was the result of grafting. “Normally people don’t use bougainvillea for bonsai,” he says. “This one was grown from a cutting from a much taller tree at a nursery. None were rooted, they were just pieces of wood in a pot.”

Finally, you can make a bonsai by grafting it, cutting a little piece off an established tree and sticking it in the dirt. Barry’s bougainvillea was the result of grafting. “Normally people don’t use bougainvillea for bonsai,” he says. “This one was grown from a cutting from a much taller tree at a nursery. None were rooted, they were just pieces of wood in a pot.”

“It’s kind of at the end of its winter flowering right here. I’ll end up pulling all these flowers off, and little green leaves will pop up and it’ll go into a leafing stage.”

“It’s kind of at the end of its winter flowering right here. I’ll end up pulling all these flowers off, and little green leaves will pop up and it’ll go into a leafing stage.”

First consideration when selecting a tree to “bonsify”? “What will take the longest to grow,” Barry says. “The trunk will take the longest to grow, so you want to find something that has an interesting trunk. What I look for are trunks that widen at the base. That’s what gives the tree the look that it’s rooted into the Earth really well.

As for the soil, “there’s so little space that every granule is relevant.” Barry’s bonsais grow in a special mix of lava rock, dirt and akadama clay.

As for the soil, “there’s so little space that every granule is relevant.” Barry’s bonsais grow in a special mix of lava rock, dirt and akadama clay.

His bonsai master, Fred Miyahara (who won’t hesitate to prune a wayward branch that’s been nurtured for months) works exclusively with Japanese black pine in his own practice. “My master’s trees over 300 years old. They were imported from China and Japan. They have to sit in quarantine for almost a month in our customs and they have to be so healthy to withstand while the customs people just neglect it before it gets to go through a lot of bonsais make it into this country because they’re so small, a lot of people will build a box around it, put it into their luggage and just take it with them.”

His bonsai master, Fred Miyahara (who won’t hesitate to prune a wayward branch that’s been nurtured for months) works exclusively with Japanese black pine in his own practice.
“My master’s trees over 300 years old. They were imported from China and Japan. They have to sit in quarantine for almost a month in our customs and they have to be so healthy to withstand while the customs people just neglect it before it gets to go through.  A lot of bonsais make it into this country because they’re so small, a lot of people will build a box around it, put it into their luggage and just take it with them.”

Your second consideration: the roots. “You want something that has some nice-looking roots on the surface that like they’re grabbing the ground, almost like a claw. That’s what gives it that feeling of strength, that stability.”

“When the tree is very young it’s very flexible, so some of the trees have wires on them. [This] one is heavily wired because the tree’s natural tendency is to grow up. But it should taper as you go up, so the lowest branches hang the lowest — but as they move along up the tree, they’re a little be more vertical, a little bit more vertical. And then at the very top of the tree, the branches are going straight up. All I’m doing is pulling the branches down, keeping them level.”

“When the tree is very young it’s very flexible, so some of the trees have wires on them. [This] one is heavily wired because the tree’s natural tendency is to grow up. But it should taper as you go up, so the lowest branches hang the lowest — but as they move along up the tree, they’re a little be more vertical, a little bit more vertical. And then at the very top of the tree, the branches are going straight up. All I’m doing is pulling the branches down, keeping them level.”

Non-bonsai plants at the Levine home include this spiky silk floss tree.

Non-bonsai plants at the Levine home include this spiky silk floss tree.

Branches should be your third consideration, according to Barry, “because it doesn’t take very long to put new branches on the tree. You can do that in a couple of growing seasons. I’ve seen someone take a tree and strip 100 percent of the branches off and just leave the trunk. And then one by one as the little buds popped out. If it popped out on the right side and they wanted it there, they’d leave it. If it popped out on the left and they didn’t want a branch there, they would just rub the bud off. So by letting this one bud extend and get longer, that becomes the branch. And eventually what used to be a bud becomes this thick branch, and it’s right where you want it.”

Ciara, Barry and Kiko pose by the collection.

Ciara, Barry and Kiko pose by the collection.

Benjamin takes a break by the cycads.

Benjamin takes a break by the cycads.

Many of the stone statues are from Bali, where Barry’s brother now lives. Here, a Hindu goddess reclines beside the staghorn fern.

Many of the stone statues are from Bali, where Barry’s brother now lives. Here, a Hindu goddess reclines beside the staghorn fern.

A common misconception is that bonsai is a type of tree. In fact, many kinds of trees can be turned into bonsai; species with large leaves, for obvious reasons, are not conducive to the form. The Japanese term bonsai roughly translates to “tray plantings.” Properly shaped bonsais are transplanted into thin, low pots to keep the roots in check, so the tree won’t grow very fast or very tall.

“If left unchecked, the roots are a mirror image of the tree above it,” Barry says. “If the tree has a big branch going right, I could guarantee you that if you down there, there will be a big root going to the right.”

Styles of bonsai include “formal upright,” “informal upright,” “slanted,” “broom style” and “cascade,” mean to resemble a waterfall coming down a mountaintop — as seen in the juniper above. Its apex is actually below its roots.

Styles of bonsai include “formal upright,” “informal upright,” “slanted,” “broom style” and “cascade,” mean to resemble a waterfall coming down a mountaintop — as seen in the juniper above. Its apex is actually below its roots.

The tools needed for bonsai are intense, and often imported and quite expensive. Kits include branch and root cutters, branch benders, wire and leaf trimmers.

The tools needed for bonsai are intense, and often imported and quite expensive. Kits include branch and root cutters, branch benders, wire and leaf trimmers.

Bonsai shows are huge in Japan. One of biggest-ever sales was to a bigwig from Sony, who bought a Japanese black pine (native to the region in which he was born) for $1 million.

Bonsai shows are huge in Japan. One of biggest-ever sales was to a bigwig from Sony, who bought a Japanese black pine (native to the region in which he was born) for $1 million.

Oh, and about those gift-store bonsai? “Here’s the problem: Those are all baby junipers. What they usually do is they grow it really fast in a big pot so it gets to be a decent size. They chop the roots off completely jam it in that little pot without letting it get acclimated to it or anything, and they put rocks on top to make it look nice and then they glue the rocks in so that the thing can be shipped to Home Depot. But then when someone tries to pour water on top, the water just runs right off the edge. If you do buy one, immediately pull it out and put it into a bigger pot.”

Oh, and about those gift-store bonsai? “Here’s the problem: Those are all baby junipers. What they usually do is they grow it really fast in a big pot so it gets to be a decent size. They chop the roots off completely jam it in that little pot without letting it get acclimated to it or anything, and they put rocks on top to make it look nice and then they glue the rocks in so that the thing can be shipped to Home Depot. But then when someone tries to pour water on top, the water just runs right off the edge. If you do buy one, immediately pull it out and put it into a bigger pot.”

A lifelong process comparable to golf or chess, bonsai is “truly a blend of art and horticulture,” Barry says, “and an art that one can never master.”

A lifelong process comparable to golf or chess, bonsai is “truly a blend of art and horticulture,” Barry says, “and an art that one can never master.”

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Juniperus x media ‘Blaauw’ (juniper) bonsai in The Community Garden
Pinus thunbergii (Japanese black pine) bonsai in The Community Garden
Bougainvillea ‘Barbara Karst’ (bougainvillea) bonsai in The Community Garden
Punica granatum (pomegranate) bonsai in The Community Garden

  • Carmelo Benher

    YOU ARE AN AMAZING ARTIST