With great enthusiasm and little skill, I learned how to build a bonsai tree.

May 17, 2017–I always wanted to build a bonsai tree.

So when Dietert Club Ed offered a class, I signed up.

Nine other wannabe tree makers shared my interest. We were a diverse group, with several retirees, a couple of younger ladies, and one millennial.

Instructor Ryan Odegaard had his hands full trying to turn us into full size bonsai masters.

The first thing we had to learn was how to pronounce “bonsai.” It’s not “bonn-sigh,” it’s “BONE-tsai.” Literally the word means something like “tray-planting.” Then he took us through the history and philosophy of bonsai. But all we really needed to know is that bonsai is the Japanese art of maintaining a miniature tree in a shallow pot.

Because we were ready to get dirty.

Here’s what it looked like before we turned it into a symbol of Japanese culture.

We each received our japonica in a deep plastic pot. The shaggy bush was a long way from being a bonsai.

Now, you can identify the authentic bonsai practitioner by how they interact with a potential tree. Whereas most gardeners look at foliage, a bonsai master will squat beside the plant, gazing from the pot level, becoming one with the plant.

He is looking at the bone structure, or trunks.

So we dutifully bent over and meditated on the stems, pretending we knew what we were looking for.

At that point, there was some earnest bartering, as students swapped plants, yearning for the tree that “spoke” to them.

I ended up with a dual tree–two distinct plants paralleling each other.

Finally, we were given permission to pare. Like Michelangelo, we were told to “cut away everything that was not a bonsai tree.”

This meant giving the plant a haircut–hacking away the top 1/3 of the plant, trying to form a dome shape.

After a few tentative snips, we began pruning with passion, until we grew nervous about cutting too much.

Then we had to find the “front’ of the tree.

I had the mistaken idea that a tree was meant to be viewed in three dimensions. No, a true bonsai has a front. To find it, you place the tree on a turntable and meditate while you seek the proper view.

This was a challenge, especially with my dual trunks, as in the Japanese culture everything is symbolic. We were searching for branches that hugged you, while avoiding branches that pointed at you, while told to visualize branches that weren’t there yet.

After endless flipping, I found my hugging branches, and moved to the next step–more pruning.

Whole stems were cut, along with tiny branches. Anything pointing toward the viewer went. Along with downward drooping stems, limbs that formed a Y, branches that crossed and branches that ran parallel. When I thought I’d pruned to the barest minimum, an instructor spent another 20 minutes showing me more cuts to make.

Once the tree was rudimentarily shaped, you’d think you were finished. But no. The part above ground is only half the tree.

We had to go through almost the same process with the roots, literally sawing off 3/4 of the root mass, then boring out the tap root, rinsing off all potting soil, and combing out the remaining fine roots. With a comb. A root comb.

The final step was to wire our shorn creation into a shallow ceramic pot. We backfilled with special soil, watered and poked it with a chopstick to remove air pockets.

After a final soaking we displayed our trees.

Sticks in dirt.

That’s what mine looked like.

But, we’re told, if we water them twice a day and keep them fed, trimmed, and protected from the elements, they will look great in a hundred years.


The current catalogs of classes are now out for Dietert Club Ed and Fredericksburg ISD Community Education. Club Ed classes are listed at www.clubed.net; FISD classes can be found at www.fisd.org.