The Virtues of Restraint

Shortly after we moved into our house (which She Who Must Be Obeyed bought me for my birthday fifteen years ago), we were given a bonsai juniper as a housewarming present. Since I deal with all of the Chez Belm biology projects (carnivorous plants, herb garden, outdoor landscaping, fermented food products, tropical fish, small boy), I took on the care of the tree, using the accompanying Ask Dr. Bonsai pamphlet as a guide. The tree sat on our mantelpiece until late spring, when I decided I had better take it to an expert to improve its health.

“Dr. Bonsai” is Michael Levin, owner of Bonsai West in Littleton, MA. He recognized my tree, one of dozens that were sold at shopping mall pushcarts during the holiday season, as one that he had potted himself. “You haven’t killed it,” he commented, “which is the first step in successful bonsai care.” I nursed that tree through the following summer, and managed to acquire a few more trees between now and then. My success to kill ratio is about 50%, a number that will improve now that I know what trees are best suited to my back porch growing area.

About this time every fall I bring in my trees for a winter “tune up,” where we evaluate their overall health, work on pruning and shaping, and prepare the juniper for winter dormancy. That’s how you keep junipers alive; you leave them outdoors in a cold frame, a luxury I don’t have at home. My juniper spends it’s winter at boarding school, a bargain at $50 for the season. My original housewarming gift finally expired last fall, the victim of shock from being transplanted to a larger pot.

My second juniper is on the mend after a near-death experience. You can see the spindly growth at one end where the tree almost died off.

I managed to keep that branch alive this year, so now the tree has been moved to a lager temporary pot to promote uninhibited growth.

I brought in a jade plant grove that I had built up from random cuttings two years ago.

I had to trim it back significantly to allow branches to form in a more open pattern next spring. You can see all of the leaves that were removed piled up behind it.

Why am I blathering about miniature trees? Because working on them is teaching me lessons about patience and restraint. Nothing about caring for a bonsai happens quickly; the fastest events – new budding, soil changes – happen on a scale of weeks. You can’t just randomly cut, trim, or wire branches, you have to have a vision of what you want the final tree to look like five or ten years from now and cut accordingly. A well-formed tree has just enough growth to create the desired shape, a form that is arrived at after mercilessly paring back anything that won’t contribute to the final result.

Is this all just a metaphor for improving my cooking and plating? You decide.

Before I leave from any Bonsai West visit, I take a stroll through their garden, which is full of reminders of what I could create if I take the long view.

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2 Responses to The Virtues of Restraint

  1. Aaron says:

    This is a great post – and lovey trees!

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