Gardening often provides a certain amount of instant gratification. You plant annuals and have immediate color in your garden. The new mulch makes the yard look fresh and clean. At most you have to wait a few months for a plant to bloom or bulbs planted in the fall to produce spring tulips and daffodils.
But when it comes to bonsai, be prepared to practice patience. Shaping these trees and shrubs is an art that takes years to produce results. Bonsai (pronounced bone-sigh) is the art of imitating nature in a confined space.
Bonsai does not refer to a particular kind of plant. Just about any tree or shrub can be made into a bonsai -- evergreens such as junipers or deciduous trees such as maples. Even azaleas and tropical plants.
"You can take any kind of tree and make a bonsai out of it," said Dan Trzepacz, a founder of the Buffalo Bonsai Society. "They're not special trees that were grown to be bonsai."
The tree's growth isn't stunted. In fact, both the branches and roots are pruned to promote growth.
"I don't look at trees like normal people (do)," said Jerry Rucker, a member of the Buffalo Bonsai Society. "I look at it and say, 'I could bonsai this. It's already halfway there."
Although he sounds a little crazy, I understood what he meant when I looked at the trees in Delaware Park the next day. I kept picturing how these towering giants would look like if they were a foot tall.
I always thought you grew bonsai inside, probably from watching too many movies featuring Zen-like characters pruning bonsai indoors. Growing bonsai, however, is an outdoor activity. The trees are in pots but they're not house plants (with the exception of a few tropical bonsai). And because the tree is in a pot, it requires a great deal of attention, especially during the summer. Be prepared to water every day. If you go on vacation, the family pet is not the only thing you'll have to find a neighbor to care for while you're away.
Trzepacz first fell in love with bonsai in the 1950s when he was stationed in Japan with the U.S. Navy. His father worked in a nursery, where the goal was to grow plants bigger and faster.
"And these people had spent hundreds of years keeping them small," he said.
The best way to learn about bonsai is to see them and talk to the people who created them. The Bonsai Society will hold its free annual show May 31 and June 1 at the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Garden. In addition to the exhibit, there are also free demonstrations.
For beginners, many club members recommended starting with juniper procumbens, a dwarf variety. It's easy to find and therefore inexpensive, responds well to pruning and grows fast.
Those who are serious about growing bonsai have a whole collection of tools they use to shape and prune -- which can get pricey. However, beginners can get away with four basic items: scissors, annealed copper wire, wire cutters and concave cutters.
The first three tools you might already have around the house or can improvise. However, the concave cutters are unique to bonsai. This tool allows you to cut branches and leave behind a concave wound. Unlike a straight cut, it will be difficult to tell a branch was there once the wound heals.
There are five fundamental shapes for bonsai : formal upright, informal upright, slating, cascade and wind-swept.
It's probably a worthwhile investment to buy a book on the subject. A good choice for beginners is "Bonsai: A Care Manual" by Colin Lewis (Laurel Glen, $19.95). The book covers all the basics of bonsai, plus includes an index detailing the care and traits of various species.