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June 18, 2013

Mastering the art of bonsai

GREENVILLE — John Miller says there’s a lot more to bonsai than just putting a tree in a pot.

”You’re creating something that’s beautiful ... it’s an art form,” he said, describing the ancient Japanese practice of shaping miniature trees growing in shallow containers.

“There’s a reason we don’t put the them in a deep pot. A shallow pot is part of the optical illusion,” he explained. “You make your mind see a tree and not a little plant.

“Anyone can grow a plant, but to get it to look like it’s sweeping down the mountainside you have to understand how plants grow,” he continued.

“When a tree starts to grow off the edge of a cliff, it’s growing up toward the light. But gravity pulls the branches down, so the lower branches have to reach out farther to get the light.

“The Japanese developed the rules to make them (the trees) look like something in nature,” he said. “You use a rock as an accent to make you think of a mountain.”

Bonsai artists can wire branches to put them in the desired shape, but a wire shouldn’t be left on too long or it will scar the tree, Miller said.

How long is too long?

Miller said if the branch starts to thicken, the wire should be taken off. The branch can later be rewired if it’s not staying in position. A small tree may have to be wired three months to stay in place; if a pine tree is used, that may require two to three years.

“You can exhibit a bonsai with a wire on, but if the branch is scarred, that’s considered a fault,” he said.

Special tools are used in shaping the branches to limit growth and meet the artist’s design. Miller’s favorite for small trees is actually a Fiskars sewing scissors. “It’s cheaper than those imported from Japan, and you can find it at sewing supply stores,” he said. “ For trimming larger branches — when you get serious — you need diagonal cutters that are designed for bonsai.”

Because of the shallow pots used, bonsai requires more care than a patio plant, for example.

“They need sun to be healthy, but not a full Texas sun. I keep them under a shade cloth in the summer or place them in the yard under partial shade. You learn by experience. I’ve killed my share of them by under-watering,” he said, chuckling. “You begin to get a sense of what they need.”

His oldest bonsai tree, an ash juniper which he “inherited” from a friend in 1998, is now approximately 185 years old.

Miller became interested in the art of bonsai in 1966 when he found his first book on the subject.

“I did bonsai on my own for about five years, and then in October of 1972 the Bonsai Society of Dallas put on an exhibition at the State Fair. I found people there  I could talk to. I followed two mentors around the exhibit and listened to them critique the trees. I also took workshops which are sponsored by the bonsai clubs. You have to get your hands dirty in order to learn. My first workshop tree was in 1972, an English box which I still have.”

Texas now has six major bonsai clubs, and Miller is a member of both the Dallas and Fort Worth groups.

He grew up on a farm in southwest Missouri, and says he has always been interested in plants and gardening. After serving in the Army from 1951 to 1953, he attended Missouri School of Mines on the GI Bill and graduated with a degree in physics and a minor in electronics. Because his career as an engineer involved several moves over the years, bonsai offered advantages.

“When I moved I had to leave my gardening behind. With bonsai, I could take it with me.”

He retired in 1994, and he and his wife, Sue, who also grew up in the country, settled on an acreage near Farmersville because they had family in the surrounding areas. The Millers have five children, 13 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.

“We have our house and my trees, and I keep it mowed,” he said, but he does not own any livestock. “I didn’t retire to go to work,” he explained, grinning.

Miller says that you could call bonsai his hobby, but it is much more.

“It’s an art form. It’s about creating art. It’s an emotion.”

Anyone interested in learning more about bonsai may go to the website bonsaisocietyofdallas.com or visit Dallas Bonsai shop in Garland. For other information on getting started, call John Miller at 903-776-2910.  He will be presenting a program for Hunt County Master Gardeners in September.

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