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Bonsai Nature Inspiring Art
Written by Kelly Chandler, Staff Writer

A red torii, a traditional Japanese gate, forms the entrance to Ken's bonsai garden where he works with a variety of trees, shaping them into pieces of living art.

        Deep in the woods of Zionsville, you will find a torii, a traditional Japanese gate that marks the entrance to a shrine or sacred place in the Shinto culture.

        A native woodpecker has made himself at home in a high corner of the red torii, which, coincidentally, translates to 'bird's perch.' And Ken, a bonsai practitioner, has also made himself at home there.  Just past the gate, he has created a bonsai garden which serves as his place of refuge.

        You can find the 60-something out there virtually every day.  It's quiet and peaceful, he said, a place where he can immerse himself in nature.

        "I love to get up every morning and see the trees; work with them," said Ken, who asked not to be identified further due to privacy concerns. 

        Bonsai, a Japanese art form using trees planted in containers, dates back more than a thousand years.  The trees can range in size from miniature, the most popular, to large, which are classified up to eight-handed/man pieces.  Those specimens can grow several feet tall.

        The trees are shaped into a variety of styles by the growers/artists who can selectively remove leaves and prune the trunk and branches.  Wiring and clamps are also used to shape the trunk and branches to the desired form.  Each variety's roots are also trimmed so they remain shallow but healthy for life in a pot. 

        Ken said he first got interested in bonsai when he purchased a cedar tree from the Philadelphia Flower Show 30 years ago.  That piece, he said, died because he kept it indoors.  He noted the key to initial success is to determine the tree's dormancy.  Most bonsai pieces need to be wintered outdoors for at least six weeks.

        Now, with many more years of experience under his belt, Ken is a wealth of knowledge on bonsai.  He is a longtime member of the Bonsai Society of the Lehigh Valley (BSLV), which offers lectures by world-class bonsai artists, hands-on workshops and educational critiques.    

        Dave Tettemer, of Hereford Township, also a member and past president of the BSLV, said he appreciates the creative aspects of the bonsai craft.  He said he always loved plants as he grew up on a small farm with a greenhouse.  About 20 years ago, he started exploring the Japanese art.                      

        "I naturally gravitated toward bonsai," he said.  "The thing I appreciate the most is the commitment you have to make towards it.  It is a lifelong commitment.  Once you start a tree it depends on you for water, fertilization, trimming it back, trimming its roots…If you don't give them the care they need they will die."

        Tettemer, who has a 250-year-old bonsai tree collected out in Colorado as a part of his collection of about 50, said the biggest misconception about bonsai is that you starve or stress out the tree.

        "Quite the contrary," he explained.  "You treat it like a family member.  You water and fertilize it regularly, treat it immediately at the first sign of bugs or fungus.  It's very important to keep it healthy.  To invest as many as 50 years of your life, to not take care of it and to not maintain it wouldn't make a whole lot of sense."  

        Back inside the confines of Ken's garden, you will find dozens of species of trees emerging from their winter slumber.  Referring to the pieces as "his babies," he carefully digs each one out and places it in a bed of stone and clay soil.  He notes he finds trimming them by hand, versus using a scissors, results in less browning foliage.

        "The idea is it's not about the age, it's styling it, putting it in a pot and making it look old," he said of the craft. 

        He showcased pieces of his collection, like four Zelcova trees he is grafting into one and a training pot containing four individual trees which will feature a moss path to resemble a forest scene.  He also had a crab apple tree, with its roots growing up a rock in "root over rock" style and a Ponderosa pine in a cascade style, with its trunk and limbs flowing downward like a waterfall.

        While he routinely finds specimens for his collection on his 8-acre property, Ken said he has also known bonsai artists to fashion dandelion and even poison ivy in lieu of trees.

        "You are free to use whatever you like," he said of the species utilized.  "It's all about what you want to create."





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