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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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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