By Carol Siyahi Hicks
Bonsai cultivation is an ancient art, originating in China, adopted by the Japanese and today practiced worldwide.
The literal translation of the Japanese word “bonsai” is “planted in a tray.” The more than 1,000-year-old practice has sought to create a dwarf version of a tree as it appears in nature.
For many considering venturing into the world of bonsai, the aim may seem daunting. Then, enter Tomasz Przepiorkowski, a Xenia Township resident and Ph.D. horticulturist, who calls himself, quite simply, a “plants man.” By day he is a manager at the 1,200-acre Studebaker Nurseries in New Carlisle. At home, he is a passionate cultivator of some 200 bonsai. He is quick to say that he is not a master of the art, but rather a devoted student, whose interest in the practice is primarily scientific.
He suggests that a person new to the art start with Juniper procumbens, “which is forgiving,” and with tools found in most homes: scissors, wire cutters, needle-nose pliers, pruning shears, a small claw and chopsticks. Purchases online might include bonsai cutting pliers, plastic bonsai training pots, bonsai screens, and anodized copper or #12 or #14 aluminum wires. For the planting medium he generally uses half organic topsoil and half small lava rocks and chicken grit (crushed granite) to inhibit root growth. “Junipers, however, like a drier soil, so add more rocks,” he says. The steps in bonsai creation are cultivation, styling, care.
While people often style the plant before planting, Przepiorkowski prefers to plant first. He begins by placing the screens over the training pot drainage holes and threading the copper wire through both screens and holes, up to where the plant’s upper part will be. Filling the pot halfway with his soil mixture, he mounds it slightly where the plant’s center will be (in this case, off-center in the pot).
He then takes a Juniper procumbens and trims the roots by half or two-thirds, depending upon plant size. Using his fingers to remove most of the soil, he stretches the roots over the pot’s soil mixture, down along the container’s sides. Attaching the copper wires to the plant roots with needle-nose pliers to affix the plant to the pot, he then tightens the wires at the pot’s underside. Adding more soil mixture almost to the container’s top, he assures the plant stem is exposed an inch or more, then uses chopsticks to compact the soil mix around the roots.
Styling to Kengai (bonsai styles can be found online, along with bonsai instructions), he uses pruning shears and bonsai cutting pliers to remove two larger, upward-facing branches and multiple branches fanning from the same spot, creating openness and a flattened, pleasing asymmetry.
He then bares the stem, a crucial part of the plant’s appearance. After achieving the desired look, he gently sprays the plant with water and puts it in the shade for a few days to help plant recovery. Eventually he’ll attach clothespins or other weights or wires to encourage branches in a weeping conformation.
Przepiorkowski cautions that bonsai require commitment, as they need regular watering and periodic fertilizing, trimming and replanting. He says not to be afraid of failures, however, as ultimately they will aid in learning this ancient art and understanding your plants in a unique way. He especially loves watching how the restricted roots create a miniaturization of the leaves, as well as the plant’s overall growth and development of a thick stem and old-tree look.
The joy of each plant’s creation, he believes, is far more than worth the effort.
Since 1970, Carol Siyahi Hicks has lived and worked in Greater Dayton as a journalist, national literary magazine editor, communications and marketing professional, author, and most recently at The Dayton Foundation as the vice president of public relations and marketing. Her book, Gifts from the Garden, has a local setting and is a philosophical and joyful look at gardening, nature and life.