The Art of Growing Bonsai

By Tracy Morin  |  Photography courtesy of Brussel’s Bonsai Nursery

As a de-stressing hobby, cultivating bonsai trees is more popular than ever — but the success of these potted miniatures hinges on proper care.

At Brussel’s Bonsai Nursery in Olive Branch, Miss., owner Brussel Martin is accustomed to doling out a slew of advice to bonsai tree owners — brand-new and experienced hobbyists alike. With more than 150,000 trees on the property at any given time and 10,000 orders per week shipping out all over the country, Brussel’s houses the largest bonsai nursery in the United States.

​“We have a catalog and website with every conceivable size and price range of bonsai, from $30 to $30,000,” Martin explains. “We even provide the trees for the Netflix television show ‘Cobra Kai.’ And since the pandemic, our sales have more than doubled.”

Martin’s own interest in the art of bonsai kicked off in the 1960s, when his architect father brought back a tree from California. By his teen years, he was growing his own trees and even importing others from Japan, the country where the art was refined to its pinnacle. Now with decades of experience, Martin is a true authority on the art of bonsai — and he shares several key lessons for beginners.

​First things first: Contrary to popular belief, bonsai (pronounced “bones-eye”) does not refer to a particular type of tree; there are many varieties, which may be suitable for indoor or outdoor placement. Instead, bonsai refers to trees that are grown in a pot. They are then subjected to the techniques associated with this art form, such as trimming, pinching, and wiring.

​“You can technically bonsai everything, but typically you pick trees with small leaves or short needles,” Martin says. “You create them. They look like a big tree, but in miniature form, and you accomplish that through the techniques. It’s a great hobby for people who love the connection to nature, horticulture, and art.”

​For first-timers, Martin recommends examining your lifestyle and learning the basics of horticulture. He suggests a durable, insect-resistant variety to start with, one that needs little trimming and can survive a small amount of neglect. However, he adds, these trees still need regular maintenance — they can’t be left for days without water when the owner is on vacation, for example. Think of them like a pet that needs proper attention and care.

​“With beginner trees, your first goal is simply to keep it alive,” Martin says. “Then you’ll feel more comfortable adding to your collection and working with techniques like trimming and wiring. Our trees come with a proper care sheet that includes instructions on watering, placement, and fertilizing, but there are also bonsai books, clubs, and websites that are full of information.”

Bonsai trees took off in Asia, especially Japan, out of necessity, as compact spaces and postage stamp-size yards weren’t suitable for growing larger trees. These miniatures allow their owners to enjoy nature in a dramatic and interesting way while taking up less room. Today, they are also very popular in Europe. And, though Americans tend to have larger yards, bonsai is growing in the States as well, especially during the last year, as people spent so much more time at home.

And there’s another reason that pandemic-related life changes might attract more Americans to the art of bonsai: The hobby is known for its stress-relieving properties.

“Traditionally, most people growing bonsai trees in Japan were men, as it was considered a relaxing activity, and a big percentage in America are people with high-stress jobs, like doctors and lawyers,” Martin explains. “A lot of people end up with three or four trees, because it’s about as easy to take care of a half-dozen as it is to care for one. Some people may have up to 20 trees.”

When purchasing a tree, it must be paired with the perfect pot. For example, a 16-inch tree can flourish in a 10-inch pot, a size that allows enough room and soil to keep it healthy and growing. The pot also adds to the esthetics; Martin compares pot-and-tree pairing to picking the right frame for a picture. Then, every three to five years, the tree must be repotted (possibly in a bigger pot, if it has outgrown its current home).

Bonsai enthusiasts can also choose from a wide variety of trees. For beginners, Martin often suggests indoor types like the Hawaiian umbrella, jade, or ponytail palm, or a few outdoor varieties that are less hands-on. And, even with indoor varieties, Martin notes that moving them outside in warmer-temperature seasons is best, as they benefit from direct sunlight.

​Indeed, another benefit is that bonsai trees are portable; even apartment or condo dwellers can usually fit them inside or outside, and move them around to create the desired decor. Meanwhile, Mississippi’s mild winters mean that special cold-weather care is minimal. But owners will have to learn the bonsai maintenance skills, such as trimming and wiring.

“As the trees put new branches out, almost all of them need to be trimmed in the growing season,” Martin explains. “Wiring is for positioning a limb. You put a wire on a branch and bend it into place, then leave it for six months. That makes a scar in the branch so that the tree stays in that design. That’s how you refine the tree.”

Ultimately, owners need time and patience to develop their bonsai trees. They also need to establish a routine for care and should be willing to achieve a basic understanding of the art form. Still, Martin stresses that the hobby is not shrouded in mystique — or terribly complicated.

“My thumb is not green; it’s just a maintenance effort,” Martin says. “You don’t have to spend a lot of money, but there is a lot of choice. We have trees in nursery pots and finished pots, young and old trees.”

And, if you do end up becoming a passionate bonsai buff, you’re in the right place. Each year on Memorial Day weekend, Brussel’s Bonsai hosts a three-day bonsai extravaganza called Rendezvous, which attracts hundreds of enthusiasts from around the world. The event allows attendees to enjoy education, food, and fun on Brussel’s sprawling Olive Branch grounds.

​“Bonsai is a cool, interesting hobby — you get to enjoy nature while relaxing and getting some good stress relief,” Martin concludes. “If it matches your lifestyle, it’s a nice hobby to do at home. It’s not for everybody, but the people it is for, they really enjoy it.”

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