COSAM News Articles 2020 August Bonsai — Tips and Tricks from Patrick Thompson of the Davis Arboretum

Bonsai — Tips and Tricks from Patrick Thompson of the Davis Arboretum

Published: 08/04/2020

By: Maria Gebhardt

For more than a thousand years, the art of bonsai has cultivated plants on a small scale. 

Patrick Thompson of the Donald E. Davis Arboretum has been caring for a Red Hills Azalea or Rhododendron colemanii for almost a decade.

“I started training plants using bonsai techniques to maintain my collection when I was a college student without a permanent place to plant trees in the ground,” explained Thompson who is a certified arborist and curator at the arboretum. “Around 2005 I got serious about bonsai after I picked up some side work watering Dr. Tommy Chase’s collection while he was out of town. He later enlisted my help to prune roots in winter and shoots in the spring to keep his specimens in shape.”

Bonsai plants are beautiful examples of how plant care is an art form. However, bonsai plants are a long-term commitment. These plants can live for decades and require necessary care to maintain their perfect shape and health. 

Thompson shares his tips for anyone to get started with bonsai.

“First, be patient. Certain plants may only need to get cut once a year,” he said.

Thompson is a fixture in the Arboretum who helps to ensure that the Auburn Azaleas looks their best and are properly taken care of throughout the year. If you are interested in beginning your very own bonsai, Thompson has a little sage advice.   

“Start with at least five or 10 plants to play with,” he suggested. “Use anything that looks interesting. A holly bush or juniper someone yanks out to throw away is among the best material you find. It could be a privet or other weed you’ve cut back over and over that now has a gnarled stumpy appearance. Practice training and pruning on plants in the ground, they are far more resilient than plants in pots. Experiment on plants you would not be heartbroken to lose or break. A fancy pot is not what you need to get your own bonsai started.”

Drainage and soil are two important aspects to understand about your bonsai. 

“Vigorous root growth will help keep the plant growing strong. Lots of airspace in a stable growth media is essential for this. The clay gravel they use on baseball fields is ideal for a primary ingredient. More drainage requires more watering, that is part of the hobby,” Thompson said. 

He has had a chance to work with well-known organizations that provided additional insight into what goes into a bonsai collection.

“Working with institutions like the Chicago Botanic Gardens on conservation allowed me to glimpse into the care of a world class bonsai display,” he shared. “In order to have a few dozen specimens on display, they have a few hundred plants behind the scenes in various stages of training. This includes heavy wiring, aggressive pruning, and also periods of rest where plants are allowed to take time, sometimes years, to get over the stress of intensive care required to alter the plants natural desire to grow unchecked.” 

“Any type of plant can be utilized in bonsai, and any hardy bonsai can simply be planted in the ground if you get tired of keeping it small.”

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