The First Seedlings

The First Seedlings

And how we grew.
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The short answer: Bonsai trees are awesome, but hard to take care of. We work hard to make them cool and fun, and we hope you love them as much as we do now that the stress of keeping them alive is gone. For those of you that have some time, the long answer follows.

If you're new to the page, my name is Joe and I make the trees. My first tree was made [at time of writing] 24 years ago. I've always been fascinated by the art form of bonsai. To take something as strong and venerable as a tree, and to practically (and at times literally) sculpt it into a perfect microcosm has always been a subject of great interest to me. I love the idea of a tiny, portable world, with its own rules and secrets. 

Bonsai as an art form has a fun dichotomy. It is somewhat flexible, primarily dealing as it does with living things that each bring their own sort of chaos, which the Bonsai grower must adapt and channel as best they can.  I am reminded of civil engineers changing the course of rivers, cutting passes through mountains, and otherwise imposing human will on seemingly unchangeable forces.

But Bonsai is also an art form with a great deal of tradition, where the shapes and styles have been formalized and defined for centuries.  Originating in China as penjing, the method of miniaturization caught on in Japan and focused just on the tree itself. The word Bonsai translates as "tray planting" and has spread to many other cultures as a borrowed word, even if the original concept has drifted somewhat. 

In popular culture, most people my age will remember Mr. Miyagi's bonsai trees from the Karate Kid, or even the notoriously fake web satire Bonsai Kittens.

One pop culture entry I've particularly enjoyed is Tamora Pierce's Circle Of Magic novels. In the books, they are referred to as shakkan, and in the hands of a Green Mage, they function like a powerful magic battery, storing massive amounts of power. In a crisis, the shakkan tree can return all the stored power into the mage's hands, giving him the ability to pull down buildings, destroy city walls, and otherwise cause a great deal of ruckus. The idea of a tiny little tree storing intense magical power is very appealing to me.

I first tried my hand at actually growing them, and met with repeated heartbreak. I tried growing one from seed, which in retrospect seems overconfident. After the seed sprouted, I was unable to transition it properly to growing in a pot, and it died. 

(By the way, interested parties should be wary of anyone online selling "bonsai tree seeds." There is no such thing. The plants aren't bred to be small, they are each cultivated meticulously for many years.)

I tried buying a few already sprouted and growing trees, but even then I wasn't able to keep up with them. Too much or too little water, or sun, and it seems like you can lose them in a day. Losing those made me feel personally to blame; they were doing okay until I took over.

I once had another enthusiast share with me a quote he had learned from a very skilled bonsai grower: "In order to become a bonsai master, you must first kill 20 trees."  It means, of course, that the learning curve is steep, and a given amount of tree loss is inevitable. To me, the cost was too high, and I gave up.

I switched to jewelry wire many years ago, because I wanted an alternative that didn't require me to be party to any more tree deaths. With wire I could create sturdier examples of bonsai, without worrying about water, sunlight, or pruning. It was perfect for me.

We often hear "I saw this on YouTube." While there ARE a lot of artists on YouTube doing their own interpretations, the art form of wire bonsai and "money trees" has been around for decades. The best artists - YouTube or otherwise - each have their own style.  I certainly admit I try to improve my own efforts by studying their techniques, as learning any skill is a lifelong endeavor. My first-ever tree was made in 1999. In fact, I still have it on the bookshelf in my office. To my current opinion, it feels quite crude (silver daisy beads on "gold" wire) but it predates YouTube by nearly six years. There was much less information available when I started, so I guess I'll chalk it up to experience.

One of my favorite parts of creating a bonsai is finding the right "vessel" to mount the tree in. How the tree will be displayed is just as important as the tree itself. We frequent thrift stores, estate sales, and more in search of worthy containers for each tree to "live" in. We've found many unique examples of glass, metal, wood, pottery, and ceramic dishes to create little portable worlds. When I get it right, it looks like the tree literally grew there, and belongs right where it is.

In addition to finding the right vessel to hold the tree, I also like to include extra items as decoration, in a way that Hollywood set designers call world building; environmental objects that hint at a larger world or story around the tree.  Some examples I've used are:

* Standing stones

* Miniature flowers or mushrooms

* Lake Erie driftwood, mimicking tree stumps or stone outcrops

* Miniature animals or human figurines

* Hand-carved totems and Jiro statues

* 3D-printed items like lanterns and bronze statues

One tree, a moyogi-style in bright copper, was made "growing" out of a bowl of vintage wheat pennies! I'm constantly on the lookout for interesting items to spark imagination and breathe life into each sculpture.

Nearly all of our trees are one-offs, because even if we find several similar vessels, each tree seems to take on a quirky life of its own. Besides, who'd want to make (or buy) the same old thing time after time? Each of our bonsai trees are handcrafted with joy and care, matched to surroundings that lend to its story, and passed along to the perfect new owner when it strikes that chord of "that's MY tree!"

Which one will resonate with you?