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.

What marketing plans to make the art of bonsai mainstream

Ok, so I’m gearing up for another very busy spring. We have been repotting and wiring and planting trees nonstop this Jan,   feb, and March in anticipation of busy season in April and to get ready for our April spring festival.  ( april 15th, 16th, and 17th), just sitting down waiting for tea bags to do their work to the hot water,  when I noticed yet another article on the withering of the art of bonsai in Scotland.
    I had just read a similar article on the withering of the art of bonsai in America last week.  Considering this is my full time job,  and now the full time job of David,  my son Avery,  myself,  and a yet to be determined future online manager, this was disconcerting to say the least.  I actually disagree with that statement, at least in the US.  In the 25 years I’ve been doing bonsai,  and in the 13 years schley’s bonsai was been in business,  I’ve never seen more people in the 1 to 5 year active range.  Sure,  when I started there were more people,  but they were the previous generation,  that got excited by the wave of enthusiasm in the 70s, or were swept up in their excitement in the 80s with karate kid franchise.  Most of those people unfortunately moved,  or moved on from this earth,  the central florida hobby suffering with each loss .
  I was the youngest in the club back then,   at least who stayed long term,  for years. The next youngest members beating me by at least 12 years.  That slowly changed,  which was wonderful, since I’m no spring chicken these days,  but it was still just a trickle of new members. Not a flood like most of us bonsai hobbyists expect when we get into this hobby and can’t imagine anyone in their right mind not doing this.  There wasn’t even enough new members to replace the old,  or in some cases just enough.
  Now we have the Internet.  That alone has simultaneously made this hobby emense, but even smaller all at the same time.  I see people and talk to them in Texas, Michigan,  Ohio,  Utah,   California,  Louisiana and Oregon on literally a weekly basis.  That is amazing.
  I have been doing classes for beginners since 2004 on a once a month basis.  I would expect some would bow out of hobby due to other interests, but some will surprise me a couple years later seeing them still interested and still with the same living trees. They will come in and require help or supplies.  And this is once again encouraging. 
However,  I still think we are too nitchy.
The people in bonsai come from all walks of life,  which is fantastic,  but also may be why we are still so tiny in comparison with other hobbies. Golf,  for instance.  Surfing,  biking,  even orchids if we are going to stay in the plant genres.
So I propose that we start to focus on certain groups,  and try to make bonsai a part of said group.  Here are some examples.

Retirees?
Sure.  A bonsai in each hand.  A requirement for mature enlightenment. This has always been one of our strong factions .  At a certain age,  backs and knees don’t work like they used to,  and bonsai is a great way to enjoy nature without getting on your knees to plant and pull weeds and trees.  It makes perfect sense.

Chess players?
  Why not.  In bonsai,  you need to think 5 moves ahead.  And it takes years,  even decades to master.  And you only get better when you go against better competition. Not a hobby anyone will get board with because they have mastered it.  Not going to happen.

Truck drivers?
Hear me out on this one.
Driving on the road can be extremely stressful and extremely long and boring all during the same day. Cars may dart out in front or a bridge may be precariously low.  Sure, after work it’s good to unwind with a beer and burger, or possibly self destructive habits to relax,  but as bonsai growers can attest to,  bonsai is a great form of meditation to relax and wind down for the day,  or even gear up for the morning to bring your mind in focus, before you are dodging that tiny car that had no idea you almost squashed them like a bug.   It’s really a great transitional event either way.

Yoga practitioners?
You betcha. Meditation.  It fits like peas and carrots. In fact,  every yoga student should have at least 3, so they can always have one in their meditation/yoga studio,  and 2 outside in the sun to stay healthy,  and cycle them out.  They really need more,  but the start is 3. If every yoga student got into the art in the US,  we would become the biggest bonsai consumer in the world. 
In fact,  there is maybe another group of people I think could transport bonsai from a niche hobby to a mainstream phenomenon. Case in point.

Hipsters?
If we could get the hipsters excited about it in the states, like truely interested to almost “I need to improve my tree, this is more than a passing fad, but a lifestyle and I need to show how ironic I am” level,  it could kill two birds with one stone. One: is youth as hipsters tend to be under 40. In fact under 30 their ranks swell to pseudo main stream,  and because of that,  Two:  get the hobby more into main stream.
   So that’s my calling. Make the hobby 1# with the ironic artsy crowd.  It also may take the hobby in a few different directions many never thought of,  which is fine as well for the sake of art.  America has a large influx very quality,  youthful talent right now,  but it still seems to wax and wane. Let’s make it so large and such a part of everyday lifestyles that it no longer wanes to any noticeable level. 
The yoga crowd, the truck drivers,  the retirees, the chess players,  in fact,  every man woman and child should get in this hobby.  It will elevate and appreciate all aspects of bonsai. 
Ok my morning thoughts.  A little tongue in cheek.  But not.
Come to our event.  Bring a hipster.  Or a truck driver.

Live oak (Quercus virginiana) gets its first styling

Today’s project.

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This is one of 15 southern live oaks I have left of the origonal 50 cut back and container grown from seed for the last 13 years as of this summer. It was left in a pot for a few reasons.  One,  to sell. It’s difficult to sell a tree in the ground,  expecially out of season when you can’t safely dig it up.  Also,  ease of maintenance.  It’s a lot easier to keep trimmed and clean in a 12″ bulb pan.  This was cut to a line and placed on a finished container a year ago. The roots were close and it tolerated an aggressive root trimming, just like all the others. Plus,  tons of activity in the soil.  It’s amazing how much healthier they are with good drainage and correct fertilizing.

If it was grown in the ground,  or even in a larger container for a few years,  it would be triple this sized.  In fact,  30 more of the original batch of oaks in 2003 were left to grow into A1 landscaping and the last 7 I have left are all over 4″ inch trunks and 10′ tall now. Just goes to show you what limiting roots in bulb pans or bonsai pots can do to tree stunting.  I  agree that growing on the ground is the best way to thicken trunks long term. However,  it is at the expense of any branch refinement. You grow those later,  in stages.  The ground is not for refinement,  it’s for trunk development.  On a side note, root maker pots seem to be a good tradeoff on trunk development,  plus being able to do some initial styling work.     One thing I did notice,  is oaks have beneficial microbes in the soil.  More than any other tree I work with other than pines.  And health is indicative by amount of living organisms in mix and just general toughness.   Oaks are hungry, but really thrive with organic fertilizer, which makes perfect sense if the microbes in the soil do in fact help uptake nutrients like other trees displaying similar traits.
Neat stuff.
So,  I did the initial wiring. Instead of curing back hard,  I wanted to try to replicate some of the trees on the property.  How some of the branches are very long,  And actually touch the ground,  reroot, and come back up again.  This isn’t there yet, but I’m trying to give you an idea.  Also,  top straight section on upper trunk has to back bud, and be replaced in the future to create more believable taper and a better transition. I didn’t cut it back hard because we are in fall here. Leaving extra foliage up top will keep it viable and vigorous. Heavy cuts are for spring.  The last burst of growth will be nice,  And set it up next year’s chop and rewire. I’ll also do some carving on hollow in front.  Enjoy

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Busy at the farm with Jades and finishing up repotting for season

Hey everybody. It’s officially the hottest part of the summer here in Florida, but the silver lining is now it’s going to start to get cooler and cooler as we head off to Fall. Plus, the daily rains we’ve had for the last few months is also a reprieve from the heat. Not so much for the humidity. 90% nonstop humidity isn’t for everyone. Sweating standing still is an acquired taste. However, we don’t really have a winter here, which is the reason I live here in the south.  Six months of perfect weather, Can’t wait.

That said, this is the time to do all the tropical tree work, and we are in full swing. I started repotting once the nights were above 55 so the roots would recover.  That’s usually around April 1st here in central Florida, and I continue to repot and frankly beat up my tropicals till around Sept 15th.  The reason why we stop when it’s pretty hot is because the roots typically need 6 weeks of active growth to recover, and November 1st is the beginning of when we sometimes see nights below 55F.

Till then, it’s “beat the band” till we get it done. And this year we got it done. 500 new trees in containers. With another 100 to finish up the season.

Also, I have been finally styling up some trees again.  I got so hung up on the repotting, that I had missed out on the styling . I always forget how much I love this job, Until I get wire on some trees.

This time, I decided to get a hold of some old jades. These are sweet old trees. One was from a tree I had sold as a “mature” bonsai ten years ago, one was from a collection that the original owner got from Jim Smith, and one was from Jim Moody’s nursery that his grandson now maintains and improves.

Here are some of the before pictures.

I repotted this in May, with the intention of wiring it once it was established.  It is now pretty established, with new growth everywhere and roots coming out the bottom.

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And here is what it looked like after a couple hours of trimming and wiring.

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And this guy. This is the tree I sold ten years ago. The previous owner has very good at keeping trees healthy, but only used shears to keep growth in check. Time for some work.

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And here it is after I cut the straight sections out, the no taper areas, and the general flaws

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Still too many branches.  Ahh. Better.  Now the wiring begins.

20150813_161249  Final Product.   I like the pot, but I’m going to change it up a bit.  Here it is wired up.

20150813_180720  I like it .  I’ll tell you, for years I have heard that most people

1)”don’t see jades as bonsai”.  Why?  Succulent growth for one.  I don’t think that carries weight. For one,  some Ficus are darn near close to succulents, and we use them in the world in many if not all tropical areas because they grow there and are just plain tough to kill. Boababs, though rare, also make amazing bonsai. And are VERY succulent trees. Among many others, too many to list, quite frankly.

2) “you can’t wire a jade’.  For those folks I say, see above.  The other beautiful thing is, if it starts to dig in, take the wire off, the branch sets, and the wire marks pump up like a water balloon.

3)”It doesn’t have a woody trunk” Well, that is very true. It is a succulent trunk. However, it does get a rough bark that gets rougher with age. And some varieties have a very rough, corky bark. The issue with jades in general is, if its kept too wet, too cold, or too shady. Or any combination of the three, you can get rot.  Rot is the bane of any succulent. Especially if the trunk is the main focus. Having an entire trunk collapse due to a four day rain has crushed a few folk. To really put a damper on your day is for that to happen after ten years of work.

The trick is,

1)Don’t water after a re-pot till you see new growth.

2)Don’t work roots unless its hot.

3)Don’t put it in the shade. The growth will be long and lanky, and it’ll stay wetter longer. Not good for a succulent.

4)Don’t cut all the leaves off a branch. it might not back bud. I know many people will disagree and show the jades busting out all over after a defoliation from shears ,  or an elephant. Yes, the elephants do love them, and eat them to the stems. However, in a bonsai pot, it may abort bare branches to focus on new branches close to main trunk.  That may set you back a season.  Leaving one set of leaves per sub-branch will eliminate the problem.

5) Don’t  water once the temp gets below 60 F, unless the leaves start to wilt, and that may take weeks.  Root rot is the bane of jades, and water and stressed wet roots on a tropical succulent is a recipe for a seemingly healthy tree. Trust me, it happens. and if the tree is staying wet between watering,  slow down your schedule. It’ll root twice as fast.

Root the cuttings. If you are so inclined. Nothing says house warming like a sweet little house plant I.E. future bonsai to your friends and family. they root fine in just about anything.

These are just guidelines. not rules listed in stone. Jades is a tough plant and tolerates tons of abuse. If you have any other advise, shoot a message in the response section, We may post it for you if its a good one.

After I saw Jim Smiths Jades at his nursery, back in 98, then later that day at his home, I knew these types of trees could end up being something amazing in the bonsai community, since Jim had obviously already shown everyone the possibilities.  I didn’t post a picture out of respect for him,  but you can google it and see some of the most amazing HUGE Jades in the US, maybe the world. He has two at Heathcote gardens in Florida if you ever get a chance to visit. I strongly suggest you do.

I’m going to start blogging about various types of trees we have at the nursery, to coincide with new inventory we are working and shaping.  If you have a type you’d like info on that I have been growing ,   please put it in the comments section, or send me an Email through our “contact us” section on our website. I am also going to be offering these trees shown on this blog shortly, once wires have set some and they are back-budding profusely.

Thank you for your support,

Jason

http://www.schleysbonsai.com

Love/Hate Relationship with Vacations

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We recently went up north to Michigan to be a part of my little brother’s wedding, he is the baby of family so I had to make it. He’s always been a lot of fun, he had been dating his fiance for four years and it was great to get to be there for his wedding.

It was also an excuse to introduce my girlfriend to my parents and to the rest of my family. We had such a great time. I got to forget about plants for a full week. However, the plants did not forget that rain and a good amount of heat equals a crazy amount of growth.

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