Making the change from hobby to profession (and ramblings)


So for many years my most intense involvement with bonsai was attending the odd class or workshop and the mad rush of activity of repotting, trimming, and wiring the majority of my trees in spring (or summer for tropicals). But that changed recently. That was all enjoyable of course but there would be long stretches where, other than watering daily, I didn’t really have to think about trees, even with my own trees numbering into silly numbers. Now I find myself thinking about bonsai a lot more. From my regular day to day tasks of working at a nursery to the way my wheels turn while I’m sitting at home watching T.V. I’m thinking about ways to improve my own work, ways to help a bonsai nursery run efficiently… All the nerdy stuff that generally hurts my brain but also makes me happy. This has definitely given me a new perspective on a not often seen side of the art.

The odd thing that I never would have considered was how other people would react to the fact that I’ve started doing what is generally not a normal job. Not for most Westerners anyway. I went to a friends wedding this past weekend and the never ending question that always comes up when you’re at a table of people you don’t know is “So, what do you do?”. I’ve always cringed at that question but I understand why people ask it. I’ve had slightly odd jobs in the past (Like managing an exotic pet shop full of snakes, lizards, and tarantulas) but they’re usually jobs people have some sort of relationship with, even peripherally.

Most people’s experience (aside from the fancy people reading this blog 🙂 ) with bonsai is a)The Karate Kid, and b)Those destined to die mallsai that are at way more places than they should be. So inevitably the reaction to my answer is either met with a blank stare as the wheels in their head try to wrap their heads around the foreign concept of bonsai being a job. Or the next most common reaction is “Oh, I love bonsai!”. Surprisingly a lot of people go right from the first to the second within a breath or two.

I guess I bring all this up because culturally bonsai is at once appreciated as an artform (or at least as an idea) and also rather misunderstood. I’ve been talking to my parents about bonsai for about as long as I’ve been messing with trees but about 6 months ago my dad bought my mom a grocery store juniper mallsai. It died (and may have been dead when he bought it). I wish he would have asked ahead of time, I could have thrown together a simple tree that would have at least had a head start in that it wouldn’t have been mishandled, mistreated and neglected for who knows how long before he even put it in his cart.

And sadly that’s probably the experience of 90% of the people who, on a whim, buy a bonsai. It was mine- I bought a flea market tree that either I killed or may have been on death’s door from day one. I happened to try again a while later and obviously my experience eventually got better. But I’ve got a hunch that most of those people who have a mallsai experience leave it there. Probably either disappointed in the tree, or even worse in themselves. And that’s a sad thing.

So here’s where I unsuccessfully try to wrangle all these disparate thoughts into some coherent point. People like bonsai. People want to try bonsai. People see a “bonsai” in a store and suddenly they fantasize a world where they have their own priceless Karate Kid juniper experience. And then it dies and that little fantasy dies and gets buried in that graveyard of forgotten hobbies that we all have. What I’d like to see happen is that if someone you know says “oh hey, bonsai trees are cool” put together a simple and easy to care for tree as a present (and cheap because a first tree likely will become a sacrificial introduction). And then offer guidance when needed or steer them to sources, local or online so they can learn. At least this way maybe we can spread a little of the better, more grass roots style of bonsai- not the watered down and vaguely bonsai shaped one that gets foisted on the big-box store shopping public. Hopefully what that will do is begin to jump start the hobby and get it  into more people’s hands with a positive outcome. That will have the eventual effect (hopefully) of more people becoming tangentially aware that it’s a hobby that is within reach. One that’s not quite so culturally foreign. One where people’s first reaction to the wedding reception job question is “Oh hey, I have a bonsai. I love my tree!”

Speaking of, I think it’s high time I put together a tree for my mom. One that hopefully will only die because of bad luck or just simple forgivable inexperience. One which also hopefully turns into a first learning experience on the long road of an enjoyable hobby.