Would you like to combine your love of gardening with your artistic side?

If you do, then you’d probably like to try bonsai. It’s the art of growing miniature trees in small containers, and it’s becoming more popular each year.

KTVB garden master Jim Duthie introduces us to some local bonsai enthusiasts, who show us how, with a little patience and vision, you can grow it.

If you’re a patient person, or if you need to develop patience, bonsai might be the thing for you. And you can learn how to do it, with the Bonsai Society of Boise.

“I like to say it’s my way of life, because when I first started bonsai I thought it was a hobby, then it kind of became my passion, and now it’s my way of life,” said Barb Gough, Boise Bonsai Society.

And for this Boise bonsai enthusiast, her way of life includes more than 60 different varieties of bonsai specimens in her back yard, including a bonsai grape vine that actually produces grapes.

“And towards the end of summer these will be great big and purple, hanging down just like a regular grape,” said Barb. “I have also an apricot tree and it actually gets apricots on it.”

“This is a lace leaf maple that’s quite beautiful," she said. "We have quince, we have elms, we have bougainvilleas, crabapples, many different varieties of trees. Bonsai literally means ‘small tree in pot or tray,’ and you can bonsai anything that has a woody stalk.”

And if you’re interested in this ancient Asian art of growing miniature trees in pots, the Boise Bonsai Society can get you started.

“So we encourage people to join our club," said Barb. "We have them bring their trees and we help them prop them up and we help them style.”

You’ll need some backyard space with a water source. Most bonsai need to be outdoors, but with our hot summers, you’ll want to protect them from constant direct sunlight.

Most beginners start with a common garden juniper.

“And garden junipers are almost instantaneous bonsai," said Barb. "The rest of these take a long time to get big.”

Which means you need a certain amount of patience. Some bonsai can live for more than 100 years, and are passed down from generation to generation.

“This is a specimen I collected from the Owyhees, and I would guess that it’s between 100 and 150 years old,” said Barb. “But next year I’ll start working on it and make it into an actual bonsai.”

It helps to have a vision of what you want your bonsai to look like. Then, using aluminum wire and clippers, you shape and prune the plant as it grows slowly over time, to get the look you want.

“The wire on the tree is to move it into the form it needs to be in. This branch here needs to be wired,” she said.
“And when I wire it, it will come and lay down here like this, and that’s just to achieve the shape that we want.”

“In bonsai, the thing you want to see is the shape of the trunk and the branches. If all you can see are the leaves, you can’t see the structure of the tree.”

Jon White started bonsai about five years ago. Here he is styling a juniper tree. He stripped off some of the bark on the trunk and bleached it to give it a natural, aged look.

“What you’re trying to achieve when you do bonsai is to make it look like it’s growing out in the wild, and has much age to it,” said Barb.

This bonsai technique is referred to as a raft style.

“It’s called raft because this is a regular tree," said Barb. "We took the bark off the back of it here, then laid it down, and 20 years later, it’s growing individual trees off of this trunk.”

Bonsai is living art. And since the trees are continuously growing, you have to continuously shape and prune the new growth. The work takes patience, but it has its rewards.

“What has been so satisfying to me is the tranquility and peace that comes from working with the trees,” said Greg, Bonsai Society member.

“So it’s a wonderful hobby and it just keeps going,” said Suzi Dethman, Bonsai Society president. “We’ve got trees that we’ve worked on for 20 years, and we will work on them if we live another 20 years, and then pass it on to somebody else to keep going.”

The Boise Bonsai Society is the only bonsai club in Idaho, and has about 40 members, from beginners to experts.

It doesn’t cost much to get started in bonsai, under $100 for a plant and container, a few tools, and a guide book or two. But you need to be ready to devote some time to the hobby.

For more information on learning bonsai, contact the Boise Bonsai Society.