The Timeless Beauty of Bonsai

I have read that: “Happiness is the way you arrange your mind”. While the actual translation of the word Bonsai, as it relates to the ancient Asian horticultural art, is “tree in a pot”, many practitioners of the art might say that happiness is the way you arrange your bonsai. Photo: Moon gate entrance to the outdoor bonsai garden at the Denver Botanic Gardens in Denver, Colorado.

Bonsai is the horticultural art form of growing and shaping a plant (tree, shrub, herb, weed, etc.) in a relatively shallow container to create the illusion of a much larger or older version of the plant. This very particular and precise aesthetic represents beauty to many people worldwide. The tradition of plants cultivated in this manner is recorded in China as early as 706. From China, the practice spread to Japan and the rest of the Asia. There is some evidence that the earliest spread of the art and practice of bonsaithroughout Asia had some relationship to the spread of Ayurvedic medicine, whose practitioners are believed to have carried small medicinal plants with them where they traveled and from which they would clip as needed. Photo: Carefully directed to lean and angle over many years, a specimen Ponderosa pine bonsai.

There is also a clear tie between early bonsai and the spread of Buddhism, with its focus on simplicity and minimalism. “In an attempt to find the key to meditation, some followers of Buddhism used stones and miniature landscapes with or without trees [idealizing nature] with which to focus the mind. In time artists were vying against one anther for the best scenes.” according to Craig Coussins in Bonsai School, The Complete Course in Care, Training and Maintenance”. Coussins ultimately concludes that modern day bonsai draws on all these traditions – medicinal, spiritual and artistic. Photo:Four bonsai specimens grown by Pat Gilmore of the Chico Bonsai Society. These illustrates a variety of different plants commonly used for bonsai.

The word bonsai (pronounced bone-sigh) is Japanese, and while Chinese, Japanese and Korean cultures all have their own names and methods for the art form, the term bonsai is often used in the West to describe the art form generally. It is, however, the Japanese tradition of bonsai that is most well-known in the West, according to Art Tilles, a long-time bonsai practitioner based in Whitmore, CA. Photo: A bougainvillea bonsai in bloom.

Art and his wife Gayle Tilles are widely acknowledged as experienced bonsai practitioners and advocates in our region and are members of both the Redding Bonsai Society (Art is a past-President), the Chico Bonsai Society, and the Golden State Bonsai Federation, for which Art currently serves as Parliamentarian. Art and Gayle give presentations on bonsai to garden clubs and other organizations around our region, most recently for the Anderson Garden Club earlier this month. They also regularly lead outings to collect young or small wild plant specimens from which to develop new bonsai. Art and Gayle will be going with the Redding Bonsai Club later this spring on such a collecting trip. Photo: Art Tilles at a Bonsai show hosted by the Redding Bonsai Club. Photo courtesy of the Windowbox Nursery in Dunsmuir.

The couple moved to the area in Gayle and Art began their study of bonsai almost by accident in the late 1990s when Gayle was given a bonsai specimen as a gift. “Not wanting to kill it,” Art explained to me, “Gayle began taking lessons on the care and keeping of bonsai and soon I was too.” They were both hooked. Photo: Gayle Tilles at a Bonsai show hosted by the Redding Bonsai Club. Photo courtesy of the Windowbox Nursery in Dunsmuir.

At its peak the Tilles bonsai collection included close to 60 specimens. The Tilleses have lived in Whitmore for well over 20 years, and their historic farmhouse (and former stage stop) has a lovely garden and cultivated area with with “year-round streams, water features, greenhouse, mini-orchard and vineyard.” Their bonsai collection is arranged artistically out of doors along the railing of decks that follow the contour of their land, according to visitors. Their collection “includes Seiju elms and Ilex serrata Koshobai.” Photo: A specimen boxwood bonsai at a Bonsai show hosted by the Redding Bonsai Club. Photo courtesy of the Windowbox Nursery in Dunsmuir.

While bonsai can be started from an already potted plant, or from an already started bonsai, many bonsai practitioners collect specimens from the wild. Bonsai practitioners reiterate the importance of ethical collecting: never take an endangered plant, always get permits or permission to collect on public or private land, and don’t take more than you need. Art points out that you can easily root a cutting from a plant in your own garden to get a bonsai started, and he points out that one good starter plant is boxwood, although all trees or shrubs can be worked with. When collecting in the wild, people often look for young seedlings with a developed root system but not yet very large. Good places to look include under older trees and good possible species to look for include Yellow Pine (Pinus ponderosa), Black Oak (Quercus kellogii), Canyon Oak (Quercus chrysolepis), and Incense Cedar (Calocedrus). Photo: Small seedlings collected in the wild with which to start new bonsai. Photo courtesy of the Windowbox Nursery in Dunsmuir.

A typical collecting trip on private land is nicely described by Cheryl Petty of the Windowbox Nursery in Dunsmuir: “First we clear away debris from the base of the trunk to check rootage and trunk formation. The specimens [we look for are] generally multi-trunked and about 30-inches high and wide. We [dig] in a circle around the tree, digging down to same depth as diameter of root ball. Small shovels are good, but a pick axe is better. These specialized tools that foresters use have a handle 26-inches long attached to a short pick. You can use it to dig out from underneath the tree quickly, exposing the tap root. [If you are lucky, you will find specimens with] numerous fibrous roots close to the surface and only a small tap root which [can be] cut with long handled loppers.” Photo: A Ponderosa pine bonsai.

Even in a pre-potted plant, Pat Gilmore who gardens in Nord just outside of Chico and who is active with the Chico Bonsai Society recommends looking as closely at a potential specimen’s root system as at the size and shape of the trunk (or trunks) and branches. Because you will be maintaining your tree by pruning both the roots and the branches, and working in a pot that is generally wider than it is deep proportionately, you will have more success with your tree if the root system has an outward reaching spoke appearance rather than one tap root. It is the pruning of the root system on a regular basis that will help to keep the specimen dwarfed but healthy. Photo: Pat Gilmore, an experience bonsai artist at a presentation to a garden club. Pat has an extensive collection and is an active member of the Chico Bonsai Society.

There are many many styles of bonsai, with different shapes or techniques having different names and purposes. Shaping techniques include pruning whole branches, thinning leaves, shearing end-growth and wiring branches to grow in specific directions. “The idea is create an image of age using miniaturized scale and proportion and successful specimens no matter their size, for instance less than 2 feet high and in shallow containers, which complement their shape and size. They could be large sized trees seen from a distance on rocky outcroppings, gnarled twisted and stunted by wind and sand and sun.” Photo: A bonsai by Pat Gilmore of Chico Bonsai Society.

Recommendations from the Tilleses:

“Beginners might consider boxwood. A broad leaf evergreen, easy to grow and maintain, and easily converted from a hedge that you or your neighbor might want to dig out anyway.
Junipers are available locally, and are easy to start. Any beginning tree should be started in a nursery pot, 1-3 gallon, depending on the size, until it is well established, which can take 1-2 years. Then it can be moved to a bonsai pot. Other trees can be tolerant to our climate, but would probably be best sought in a bonsai nursery, such as Maruyama in Sacramento. There are quite a few good nurseries in the Sebastopol/Occidental area. The key to any potential bonsai is a nicely distributed root structure (that can later provide the surface roots typical of an old tree) and low branching, since the top will probably be cut back. If possible I recommend beginners – unless they are collecting – consider visiting a bonsai nursery. Bonsai nurseries are more used to using appropriate soils (very good drainage) and proper early training in their cultivation.” Photo above: Bonsai tools laid out, a jade bonsai is in the upper right hand corner.

According to many experts, “Most people kill their bonsai when they bring them inside and deprive them of light.” While plants grow from both the bottom and the top, most can survive quite well as long as they have enough light (read: photosynthesis allowing for plenty of food production). Light, followed closely by careful observation of what your plant-type needs in your specific conditions are the keys to successful bonsai. Photo: A selection of bonsai large and small on display at a Redding Bonsai Club show.

Both the Tilleses and Pat Gilmore keep most of their bonsai specimens outside year round, but cover them in hardest of frost or hottest of sun.

At some point you have to ask: why? And for many practitioners who find both a spiritual side to the art as well as a horticultural side the answer is easy: Peace….the calmness which comes from being in the presence of Mother Nature and working slowly and patiently towards the creation of something with her. You pay close attention to the smallest details, you trim here, pluck there, water when dry, give your plant plenty of light and every now and then you have an epiphany, a moment of discovery that is exhilarating.

Like all gardening – or any passion – in which you are allowed to lose yourself – the intensity and focus of the process grounds you in yourself and also liberates you from the outside world. It is pure happiness in the way it arranges your mind.


Redding Bonsai Club
Art and Gayle Tilles:

Chico Bonsai Society
Meets Fourth Sunday of most months
1 – 4 pm at Pleasant Valley Recreation Center, 2320 North Ave.
For more info: Pat Gilmore: 530-343-3447
(in February 2013, CBS will meet the 3rd Sunday of the month, 2/16/13, so that members can attend the Golden State Bonsai Federation’s Mammoth Fundraiser– see below)

Golden State Bonsai Federation:

Lake Merritt Bonsai Garden in Oakland:
The GSBF Bonsai Garden at Lake Merritt (formerly the GSBF Collection North) is the home to some of the finest Bonsai in Northern California. Northern California’s only public bonsai collection is the Demonstration Garden at Oakland’s Lakeside Park. It was built, is staffed and maintained by volunteers and is supported entirely by donations. Bonsai Garden Hours: Tuesday-Friday, 11am-3pm; Saturday, 10am-4pm; and Sunday, noon-4pm.

If you know what you are looking for, Pat Gilmore indicates, you can get good bonsai tools and materials at most of our local independent nurseries; if you are just beginning, a bonsai show or class will be your best bet.

From May 2008 to October of 2012, the McConnell Arboretum and Botanical Gardens at Turtle Bay Exploration Park in Redding hosted an extensive exhibit entitled “Penjing: Magnificent, Mountainous, Miniature Landscapes”. Penjing (pronounced “pen jin”) is an art form that dates as far back as 700 A.D., where it was depicted on the tomb walls of a Shanxi prince. Penjing is similar to bonsai, the art of dwarfing trees and shaping them, but differs from it by incorporating intricate outdoor vistas. The exhibit included eleven pint-sized masterpieces.

Upcoming Bonsai Events of Note:

Golden State Bonsai Federation Hosts its annual Northern Region fundraiser February 23 & 24, 2013 in Oakland: Mammoth Fundraiser 2013: at Lakeside Garden Center, 666 Bellevue Ave, Lake Merritt. This is the annual fundraiser for the GSBF Collection Bonsai Garden at Lake Merritt (BGLM). Auction of fabulous bonsai on Saturday. Preview items at 12 Noon; auction starts at 1 PM. RSVP Club Connection Event at BGLM 4 – 7 PM. Scheduled Sunday events: Vendor sales 9 AM – 4 PM. Bonsai and Pre-bonsai sales 10 AM – 4 PM. Demonstrations by Kathy Shaner and team 11:30 AM – 3 PM. Raffle drawings at 1 PM, 2 PM and 3 PM. BGLM Café open Saturday and Sunday. Contact Randi Keppeler 925-776-2342 or

Chico Bonsai Society Hosts their Annual Bonsai Show and Sale May 4th and 5th, 2013
CARD center on Vallombrosa in Chico. 11 – 5 Saturday, 10 – 5 Sunday. For more information contact Pat Gilmore

GOOD REFERENCE BOOKS as recommended by Art and Gayle Tilles:

“Sunset Bonsai”, from Sunset Books
“Bonsai Ideas”, by Marty Mann, probably available online, but can be obtained from the website.
“Bonsai Basics, A step-by-step Guide to Growing, Training & General Care”; Christian Pessey & Remy Samson

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In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here.

Jennifer Jewell
In a North State Garden is a bi-weekly North State Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum - Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell - all rights reserved In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time, two times a month.
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2 Responses

  1. Avatar Sally says:

    What a great article. I know Gayle and Art and am not at all surprised at their interest in Bonsai. They are s lovely couple who have taken the land they own and turned it into a magical place.

  2. Avatar Ron says:

    Another great article Jennifer. I might try it.. ..