Tiny roots deep in history

THERE'S nothing new about bonsai. The Chinese have been dwarfing woody shrubs and trees for thousands of years and the Japanese for hundreds. It's been going on for decades in Australia, possibly even since the Chinese descended on the Victorian goldfields in the mid-1800s. But now our appetite for these slight, minimalist specimens is getting bigger.

Like the terrarium - that other miniature garden form now in favour - bonsai had a heyday here in the 1970s when its mysterious contortions were adored by some and derided by others.

It was a couple of decades before that, though, when Lindsay Farr became acquainted with the art. In the early 1950s, a customer at his father's Croydon nursery waved a bonsai book before his eyes. Farr was barely five but he was immediately captivated.

By the time he was a teenager he had amassed quite a collection of artfully stunted plants and a decade later he was living overseas and tending another assortment of bonsai trees on his roof. By the end of the 1970s, he and his wife Marietta were in Melbourne selling bonsai for a living.

Thirty-three years on and two moves later, their Bonsai Farm - in Hawthorn since the mid-'90s - is busier than it has ever been.

Where Farr describes the bonsai customers of old as largely ''free spirits, artistic people who held high social values and had an agenda for fixing our relationship with Japan'', there is no typical customer today.

Twenty-one-year-olds are getting them for birthday presents and art collectors are buying them to display alongside paintings and sculptures. Architects are making a feature of them, apartment dwellers are choosing them for their balconies and parents are buying them for their wayward teenagers. Women are giving them to their boyfriends for what Farr calls ''the nurturing and caring test''.

Perhaps such broadening appeal is only to be expected, given their compact proportions and our shrinking backyards, as well as our growing penchant for the designer object. While bonsai imitates nature - specifically the gnarly, twisted mountain-top tree that is battered by wind, burnt by sun,

crushed by snow but somehow prospers all the same - it does so by pointedly unnatural intervention. Leaves are removed, trunks are bent and branches are wired. Plants have their bark peeled off, their roots cut back and their limbs twisted. They are worked over with angle grinders, files and saws.

Like a pet, a bonsai isn't just for Christmas. With such a small root mass, they need to be watered - in extreme heat up to several times a day. In the growing season they require regular feeding and clipping. Every three to five years they need to be removed from their pot and given a root trim.

But Farr insists it's ''pretty easy'' to care for a bonsai and that once its form is established, beyond watering and feeding, you can do as much or as little as you like. You do need a certain disposition though. Behave like a gardener rather than ''put on a French beret and strike the pose of the artist'' is Farr's advice. ''You are dealing with something natural and you need to go about it in a workmanlike way,'' he says.

Farr has about 1000 bonsai plants - including maples, elms, pines, junipers, ginkgos, figs - in his nursery and more on his first-floor deck. He has a roof covered in Japanese black pines (Pinus thunbergii) that he is five years into training. It will be another five years before they make it into a bonsai pot, with each one still sporting a long ''sacrifice branch'' to encourage the trunk to fatten.

What Farr calls the ''timeless beauty'' of bonsai can stem from all manner of attributes. ''When you look at bonsai, even over the past 100 years it has been in a constant state of flux and evolution,'' he says. While a basal flare is often sought, plants with no flare are popular, too. Pads or clouds of foliage are a classic bonsai look, but the full canopy of new shoots has its own appeal. Downward-growing branches are generally, however, considered more appealing than vertical ones and it is always desirable to see the plant's trunk.

And while the fashion in Japan is for tiny bonsai, Farr says Australians are going for more rugged, larger (60-centimetre high) plants. ''I think in the face of strident technological advancement and with more of us living in apartments without a lot of space, people are wanting to touch moss and leaves, have a touch base with nature,'' he says.

While Farr finds the art of bonsai is better understood in the West today, he still gets the odd passer-by complaining about such severe meddling with form. ''I always ask them if they have mowed their lawn this week,'' he says.

Farr dissuades people from using bonsai more than four or five levels off the ground as they are easily damaged in the wind. Even at ground level they burn easily in direct sun and are best brought inside on hot days. For all-round indoor living though, he recommends the Port Jackson fig (Ficus rubiginosa) for its resilience.

While the most dramatic-looking bonsai tend to be those planted in a shallow, flat pot, these are also the most challenging to care for in the heat. But there is no denying that the bonsai pot plays a critical role in the overall aesthetic. Farr has a large personal collection of pots made in China during the Cultural Revolution, when all the best artisans worked out of the one pottery workshop and used the finest clay.

Following a trade delegation to China in the early 1970s, three shipping containers full of such wares arrived in Australia. The pots are still turning up in markets, op shops and hard-rubbish collections and are now getting a new lease of life holding bonsai circa 2013.

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