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Artistic expression takes root with bonsai

Bonsai combines the beauty of man-made sculptures in harmony and perfection with nature in an art form.

All parts of a bonsai – roots, trunk, branches, foliage and container – must, like traditional sculpture, express the artist’s feelings. Their displays express themselves and, at the same time, respect the essence of normal trees.

The Las Vegas Bonsai Society is having a special demonstration by bonsai artist Benny Kim from California that will teach you to express your artistic feelings with living plants. It’s at 2 p.m. Saturday at Mirabelli Community Center, 6200 Hargrove Ave. For directions, call 257-4768.

It’s strange that we often turn to the most complicated things to relax us, when the simplest things usually succeed in doing the job.

My blind friend became an excellent gardener without sight. He’d say, “Always look at the flowers; I can’t see them so I immerse myself in their scent, creating a memory to reflect upon.”

This is what bonsai does once you fall in love with it.

You catch a whole new perspective of plants once you become caught up in bonsai. I recall once seeing the late Merle Vande Weerd of the bonsai society pulling pine limbs down and asking him why. His simple answer was: “Pine limbs droop down as they mature.” It opened my eyes to how they go through the aging process.

Bonsai is made up of two words: “Bon” means “tray,” and “sai” means “growing.” So it’s growing trees in trays. In the way people cherish old treasures, bonsai specimens have the same effect, and they create a lot of mystery.

It is important to prune branches and roots and shape the tree to achieve the bonsai look. Trunk texture, its aged appearance and the container all contribute to the artistic effect.

It doesn’t require much to get started: a sharp pair of pruning shears, garden trowel, something like chopsticks, wire cutters, copper wire of various sizes, potting soil, a turntable, a tray to your choosing and a sprinkler can.

Also, scissors to trim leaves, tweezers for nipping and brushes to clean up.

Before buying the tree, observe mature trees grown in their normal setting. Look for plants with that unexpected twist, and the art of bonsai begins taking place. Your success depends largely upon the tree you start with.

Also, look for young, well-rooted, healthy plants that branch freely and will withstand severe initial pruning.

Decide at the beginning which side will represent the front of the tree. Plants have a best profile, just like people do.

You want a trunk with girth tapering gradually toward the top of the tree, and attractive bark to give the appearance of aging. Sometimes you’ll shorten the main branches to emphasize vertical trunk lines and give it a balanced appearance.

Choose plants that have small leaves or whose leaves will remain small under bonsai culture. Large-leafed plants look out of proportion.

You want a container just large enough to accommodate the tree’s root system. At the same time, the container must be in balance with the display.

Because plants are living, they are constantly changing. Bonsai trees do not have to be old to look old; that’s where the art comes in. Some have been kept in pots for a hundred years.

You can make almost any kind of tree or woody shrub into a bonsai with proper pruning, trimming and wiring. Most bonsai trees grow best outdoors, just like their full-sized relatives; but several tropical kinds do well indoors.

Because of the heat and dryness of Las Vegas, it is a challenge here. You need to understand what keeps plants healthy. The sun’s warmth pulls moisture and nutrients from the soil through the inner tissues to circulate carbohydrates throughout the plants. We call this process photosynthesis.

Now you see why bonsai is primarily an outdoor plant.

Because of their restricted growing space, they require more attention, but you do not have to be a gardener to get started. It is a relaxing hobby providing enjoyment and an outlet for artistic expression.

Bonsai plants can be sensitive to pests, so be on the lookout. The added waterings to keep the humidity up attract aphids, ants and red spider mites. Use insecticidal soap or neem to control these pests.

Because of our low humidity, fill trays with pea gravel and water and set the pots on the rocks. You don’t want the pots in water, or they might die.

Come learn this fascinating hobby Saturday to relax you in these frustrating times.

Linn Mills’ garden column appears on Sundays. He can be reached at linn.mills@springspreserve.org or (702) 822-7754

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