Make building a better Bonsai your stretch goal for quarantine gardening.

The Minnesota Bonsai Society’s annual Mother’s Day Bonsai Show was cancelled this month in the wake of the Coronavirus crisis, but never fear—the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory’s top-flight collection of Bonsai are still getting plenty of care and feeding.

Horticulturist Reva Kos is responsible for the more than 140 potted trees now in the Conservatory’s collection, just a fraction of which are on display at any given time. Though she usually works with a team of three community volunteers who help her to wire, prune, pinch and repot these precious plants for public display, since the quarantine orders two months ago, she’s been on her own. “It’s been very, very quiet,” says Kos.

Taking care of Como’s animals and plants has taken serious coordination during Minnesota’s stay-at-home orders. At the Conservatory, that has meant splitting the horticulture staff into alternating groups each assigned to work a different half of the week. The scheduling strategy helps to limit contact between coworkers and ensures that horticultural operations can go on in the event of further quarantines or if a staff member falls ill.

While Como’s weekly Bonsai gardener talk will be on hold until we can safely gather again, Kos does have some tips for at-home gardeners who are curious about buying or beginning a Bonsai on their own. 

Pick the right  plant material: Almost any woody plant or shrub can be formed into a  Bonsai, but make sure the plant you’re choosing will thrive in the conditions where it will live. “Bonsai are plants, so they generally do best outside, but there are some species that do very well indoors,” Kos says. “You want to try to mimic the temperature conditions that woody or herbaceous plants would need to grow outside, so if you’ve chosen a plant that requires a period of cold and dormancy to grow, try to create that at home.” If you’re planning to keep your Bonsai indoors, tropical and subtropical plants like ficus, podocarpus and dwarf jade are good choices for home growing.

Get inspired by Bonsai design: There are dozens of different styles of Bonsai, each with their own aesthetic goals. For instance, the forest style Bonsai (Yose-ue) features multiple plants in a staggered formation to create the sense of a deep forest in fine detail. Other styles of Bonsai try to recreate the look of a wind-swept tree struggling to survive (Fukinagashi), an upright plant reaching straight for the sun (Chokkan), or the dip and flow of a cascading river (Kengai).  Check out Instagram, Pinterest and other sites for visual inspiration, as well as the many Bonsai blogs that provide tips about training these potted trees over time. “Anyone can start a Bonsai, but it’s harder to learn if you’re afraid to touch it,” says Kos. “I really enjoy pruning, so you just have to have the confidence to trim and prune in the way you want it to grow.”

Grow your community: Once your Bonsai hobby takes root, consider joining the Minnesota Bonsai Society, an all-volunteer group whose members have a long history of support for the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory’s public collection of Bonsai. “The Minnesota Bonsai Society is a great resource for growing these plants in Minnesota, and the folks in that club are very helpful and excited to share their knowledge,” Kos says.

“There is nothing wrong with having a tree as a friend.” -Bob Ross

DID YOU KNOW?

  • Though the Japanese gave the word “Bonsai” (meaning “planted in a shallow container”) to this art form, this horticultural tradition originated in China.
  • The Marjorie McNeely Conservatory has one of the Midwest’s best collections of Bonsai for public display, with an interior Bonsai exhibit and an outdoor terrace display that features a rotating collection of potted trees.
  • Contributions to Como Friends have been critical to growing the Conservatory’s collection, and provided 100 percent of the funding needed to build The Ordway Gardens Wing that’s now home to Como’s Japanese horticultural collections.

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