My bonzer bonsai! Sculpting with trees

National champions from Suffolk are as rare as bankers prepared to admit they've failed. But we've got one in the art of bonsai.

Steven Russell

National champions from Suffolk are as rare as bankers prepared to admit they've failed. But we've got one in the art of bonsai. Steven Russell met him

THERE are folk - and I'm not ashamed to say I was one of them - labouring under the misapprehension that a bonsai is a special species of small tree. Luckily, Jeremy Willetts puts me right without laughing too much. He's heard it all before. “Most people think you either get a little tree or you grow them from seed and keep them small. But you don't: you start with a big tree and you make it small.

“There aren't many trees you can't bonsai,” he confirms. Branches and foliage come off - often to a degree that would petrify those without green fingers and scared of killing their plantlife - and trunks are bent to achieve the desired artistic touch. A tree is grown in a pot or other container. One dwarfed yew he's nurturing started off as a 25-foot tree. It will prove a fantastic bonsai, but not for a few years.

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Things don't happen overnight: it can take ages to get the shape and effect you're dreaming of. Hence, there are mini trees dotted around Jeremy's Long Melford garden at various stages of growth: horticultural works-in-progress. “You could have a tree for 10 years before it becomes a proper bonsai. Before that they're in training; get the branches going in the right direction and the foliage pads right . . . get a good twig structure . . .”

There's a little larch tree in a black bucket, for instance. It was bought at auction for a couple of quid and has thick-gauge wire around the trunk that's been “tourniqueted down” to put some shape into the tree. Branches have also been wired. This season he plans to take the wire off, as the branches would likely have set in the right direction.

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The wire used - anodised aluminium ranging from 1mm to 8mm in thickness - also allows branches to be twisted into a desired position like a child's bendy toy.

Fortunately, the trees don't seem to mind being manipulated, “as long as you don't snap a branch, and as long as the sap's still flowing through them”.

Close by is a Chinese juniper on a pole. “It hasn't been 'tortured' as such, but it's been given very harsh treatment,” he grins. “It's been putting out juvenile foliage since I've had it - spiky foliage - when you want the short, green stuff.

“I was speaking to a guy from Lowestoft who goes all over the world doing workshops. He said 'Keep it as dry as you can, put it somewhere exposed and don't feed it.' Then, you're tricking the tree into thinking it's an old tree, and therefore it will put out adult foliage. The more you feed it, water it well and keep pruning it back, the more it will put out juvenile foliage, because it thinks 'I'm a young tree!' so that's why it's in solitary confinement on that post!

“I keep it as dry as I possibly can, and it is responding to treatment, but it's going to be another two or three years before it looks anything like it should do.”

It all sounds like a cross between bringing up teenagers and creating sculpture . . . What does he like about bonsai?

“I used to enjoy drawing, but I was never very good at it. Now, having a tree - effectively a big shrub - you can prune off the branches you don't need and wire it, and can actually paint a picture with it. Some trees I don't get right: I'll have it for six months and won't know what I'm going to do with it: how I'm going to style it, what branches I'm going to take off, where I'm going to bend what. And then one day it will just come to me.”

Having bought his first bonsai about five years ago, Jeremy's a relative novice - though one skilled enough to be named best newcomer in a national bonsai competition held last month in Swindon. Actually, that contest was something of an X Factor-style sprint, in relative terms. Entrants were each given a fairly bushy tree and allowed to work on it for four hours, having to make quite rapid (and invariably irreversible!) decisions about what to cut off, what to leave, and how to style it. The pressure was on.

There is, he reflects, lots to learn. “It's never-ending. I've worked with people who have been doing it for 25 years and they're still learning new techniques and little tricks.”

It takes years to get watering right, for instance. “In Japan, if you're pupil to a bonsai master, you'll have to have worked with him for three years, or something like that, before you're allowed to touch a watering-can. Every tree needs different amounts of food and water.”

What's the secret to a blooming good bonsai?

“Sometimes I think you've either got it or you haven't.” That's artistic vision he's talking about. “You've got to get the balance of the tree right. You want to get as much movement into the tree as possible so it's got visual impact; but it's also got to look balanced. Your eye should work its way around and stay within the tree. It's basically a triangle.

“I'm still learning styling, but I can get a tree and make something quite pleasing out of it, whereas a few years ago I would have wired it all up . . . and then taken it to Green Lawns” - a business at Boxford that specialises in bonsai and oriental garden supplies, and hosts workshops - “and said 'What have I done wrong?! I can't make it the right shape!'”

Enthusiasts have to learn that apparent shortcuts aren't all they appear. “I used to be very impatient. I'd get a tree and want it to look like a bonsai straight away. Now I'll get a tree, do what needs doing to it, get everything growing in the right direction, fine-wire it, put the foliage pads in the right place, then put it on a shelf for a year and forget about it, apart from food and water. Then I'll have another look at it, maybe put it in another pot, maybe do a bit of carving. It's a long process.”

Jeremy grew up on the Cambridgeshire-Suffolk border and is an antiques restorer by trade - something he's been doing since the age of 14. He was recommended to a dealer in Long Melford during the Easter holidays just before he was 16 and started work in the village in 1976. He served an apprenticeship, later had a spell rebuilding old timber-framed houses, and at 22 set up his own antiques restoration business.

He's always loved trees and nature - “There's nothing I like more than walking through a wood” - and had been fascinated by bonsai for many years without pursuing his interest any further. “For some years I've been driving past Green Lawns Bonsai, seen the sign and always thought I ought to pop in one day but never seemed to have the time. Eventually I got round to dropping in and bought a little tree - a Chinese elm.”

Later, he attended a workshop there. “I went not knowing what to expect, with a yew tree that must have been of Christmas tree proportions: a huge thing, six-foot tall in a bucket. I thought the guy was joking when he said most of it would end up on the floor!”

That session fired his interest. “I got completely absorbed in it. I'd not long been split up from my previous girlfriend and was a bit aimless for a time. I went over there for a day and completely forgot about the problems I was having; and I met some nice people. Then I went when I could - daughter permitting, because she was only seven or eight at the time, I suppose - and I've worked with some international bonsai masters form Spain, America and Italy . . .”

Jeremy belongs to a club at Bury St Edmunds and the school at Green Lawns, and says it's a rewarding hobby for anyone.

“I think for a lot of people they see it as a kind of 'forbidden world' and difficult to break into, and with a lot of strange people! But it's not like that at all. People at Green Lawns include a vicar and a dentist. They're from all walks of life.” There are folk in their 70s and 80s, and also a lad of 12 or 13 who was in the “new talent” competitive last year.

“Most people get addicted to it after they get going, but most of them tend to stumble into it out of curiosity, really. It's not a hobby like old cars or motorbikes or steam-engines. You don't wake up one morning and say 'I'm going to buy a bonsai tree!' It doesn't happen like that.”

As we continue browsing the specimens in Jeremy's garden we come to one that looks a little different. “It's called a phoenix graft. That's a silver birch that died, but I liked the trunk so much I wanted to keep it. So what I did was hollow out the back and put a thin sapling up there.” He grins. “That's frowned upon by the Japanese. For some reason they say 'Never trust a man who does a phoenix graft!'”

Potted bonsai

The Federation of British Bonsai Societies says the hobby is as straightforward as growing any containerised plant - “indeed, that is the translation of bonsai; 'bon' a tree or plant, 'sai' a pot. Bonsai are merely ordinary trees grown in a container to look like a fully-grown tree in miniature. As such their needs are the same as any plant, principally the provision of air, water, light and nutrients”.

Jeremy Willetts says a tree should always lean slightly towards the person looking at it. But it shouldn't have branches coming towards you, looking as if they're going to poke you in the eye!

Jeremy particularly likes working with yew, privet and larch. Juniper was good to learn on and he had lots of those. “My daughter used to say 'Not another juniper, dad. Please, buy something different!' They're quite forgiving. You can tie them in knots, more or less, and re-pot them virtually any time of year, whereas most other trees need re-potting around this time of year. Larch trees are very particular. You've got about a week's window to get it right. If you re-pot them after the buds have swollen too much, it won't do them any good at all.” He says trees with large leaves, such as sycamore, walnut, ash and horse-chestnut, are trickier to bonsai

Some people have created bonsai trees from geranium!

Jeremy enjoys carving: both bonsai trunks and larger pieces of wood he finds. His drill spins at 30,000rpm and has tungsten carbide cutters

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