The art of bonsai
Ancient practice produces perfect miniature trees
People’s passions and hobbies may differ, and for East London resident Victoria Harrison – it’s all about growing trees.
Not your typical trees though. Harrison, a part-time drama teacher, spends her days lost in the art of bonsai.
An art form said to have its roots in Chinese and Japanese culture dating back hundreds of centuries, bonsai growing can be defined as growing a miniature tree inside a pot.
Harrison – who got her first taste of bonsai growing on her family farm in Stutterheim during her childhood – said her love of the art was sparked by watching her father carefully grow, nourish and cultivate the dwarf vegetation into perfect specimens.
Today, she has close to 400 trees. Though famous in Hollywood movies such as the Karate Kid franchise, Harrison said the amount of work that went into growing the perfect bonsai was seldom portrayed.
To get started, one either needs to secure tree cuttings, grow seeds, buy black bag stock from a nursery or dig trees out of the wild, which is known as “yamadori”.
While most trees can be turned into bonsai, Harrison said it was always easier to start with trees that grow well in your particular climate or region.
For the East London region, fig, wild olive and paper bark trees are great to start with.
Harrison explained that after potting a tree, one should try to shape it in a natural way, which would mimic nature. The branches and leaves should always be in proportion to the rest of the tree.
“Your tree must basically look like a big tree in nature, turned small,” Harrison said.
“A rookie mistake is to find a tree and stick it in a bonsai pot. A tree needs to grow and fatten so the training pots should be big enough to allow that. The line of your trunk needs to have shape and it’s very important to have a good root structure.
“While trying to keep the tree looking as natural as possible, some manipulation goes into it as well.
“We would wire the branches so they don’t grow straight. Straight tree branches don't happen in nature anyway.”
While bonsai growers are free to practise their own style, there are rules which should not be broken.
For one, the tree should always “welcome” you, meaning it should lean towards you. This is how you choose the front of the tree.
“You never want anything obstructing your view of the trunk or poking you in the eye,” she said, adding that bonsai trees needed to be watered daily, weeded often and re-potted at least every two years.
Patience is key as some trees can take years before they look right.
Known and loved by many for the tranquillity and relaxation it offered, Harrison said it could be a rather expensive hobby. “It just depends on how much you put in. “The gravel, how we do our potting mix and the pots themselves can be a bit costly,” she said, adding that pots could range anywhere between R300 to R4,000.
One also needs specific bonsai tools plus wire for the trees. Decorative rocks come in handy for shows.
Harrison, a member of the Border Bonsai Club, which has 30 members, said they held weekly meetings plus annual shows to share and show off their work.
“I’ve bought a few bonsai, but they don’t give me the satisfaction I get from growing something from nothing.
“It’s such a rewarding hobby,” she said.
● The Border Bonsai Club annual show is from November 10 to 11 at the Amalinda Nursery in East London. Entry is free.
There will be a re-potting station for those wishing to be shown how to re-pot, and there will be about 30 trees on show.
SMALL WONDERS: (Below) Victoria Harrison, a drama teacher at the Helen O’Grady Drama Academy, grows bonsai trees as a hobby from her home.